Written by Finn Mackay

At the FWSA conference on ‘Feminism in Academia: An Age of Austerity? Current Issues and Future Challenges’ held on the 28th September 2012 at the University of Nottingham, an activist roundtable formed one of the workshop sessions. This panel included speakers from local and national women’s organisations: the Nottingham Women’s Centre, the Worker’s Educational Association and the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.

In these forthcoming blog posts for the FWSA, speakers from the activist roundtable present their notes and some thoughts on the interface between academia and feminist activism, and how the two can work together to make feminist praxis a reality in our time of austerity. First up was Melanie Jeffs, who is Director of the Nottingham Women’s Centre, she shares the text of her presentation and then made some suggestions for how academics and the women’s sector can work together. This will be followed by Andrea Birch and Mel Lenehan, Managers from the Worker’s Educational Association, who also shared with us a brief of their presentation and some of their thoughts. Last but not least is Carol Taylor, Director of the NIACE who decided to share with us two of her recent articles to give us an insight into the significance of adult education and its role in empowering and politicising women and men. 

Melanie Jeffs, Director of the Nottingham Women’s Centre:

“What I want to give you is a bit of a view from the grassroots – where we are now and where we seem to be heading. I won’t dwell on the policies that have led us here (as I’m sure you are all aware) so I’ll focus more on the impacts that we’re seeing on the ground.

At Nottingham Women’s Centre we work with some of the most marginalised, disadvantaged women in the city, predominantly –

–          Women who are long term unemployed

–          Women with mild to moderate mental health issues

–          Female ex-offenders

–          And women with current or historical substance misuse issues

In terms of where we came from; we were set up in 1971 during the second wave of feminism (along with many women’s centres and projects across the country). We were set up to address the feminist demands of the time – employment, childcare, financial and legal independence, freedom from violence and intimidation, an end to discrimination against lesbians and so on. The work that we did then, and much of the work that we do now, is based around those key demands. So it says a lot that we are still here 41 years later (i.e.; there is still a long way to go).

I think it’s almost universally recognised that times of austerity impact disproportionately on women. It is perhaps not a coincidence that our organisation was set up in the 1970s – another time of economic austerity and rising unemployment.

So I’ve said, austerity policies in general are devastating for women. Because women typically earn less than men and have greater caring responsibilities, benefits and tax credits typically make up around about 20 per cent of average women’s incomes – in comparison to 10 per cent of men’s. Therefore any reduction in welfare spending impacts disproportionately on women.

And it’s not just the reduction in individual welfare spending that’s having an impact. The reduction in state spending is impacting on women’s jobs and services that women depend on.  Women make up 70% of the workforce in the public sector. By 2015, the government expects to shed more than 700,000 public sector jobs. Many of these workers in turn will have been providing services to vulnerable women and their children. These services will be scaled back.

So what does all of this mean for us on the ground?

We run a weekly job club at the Women’s Centre and every week we see more women desperate to find work – they don’t want to be on benefits – they want to work. This includes women who have been signed off work for some time and then sent to ATOS for fitness for work tests. I can think of one woman in particular who was signed off by her doctor, approved fit by ATOS, appealed, won and the next day received another letter from ATOS inviting her back for a new assessment. This cycle happened twice. When she received the third letter she simply stopped appealing and has now joined our job club.

As well as women coming to us for employability support, we’re seeing an increasing amount of women coming to us with more complex needs – particularly around mental health. What seems to be happening is as the money gets tighter, it gets put into generic services rather than specialist services so that’s it’s not spread too thinly. But this principle is flawed because generic services can’t always meet the needs that specialists can. In Nottingham for example, we have seen the closure of a local specialist women’s hostel, Noelle House, which worked with single homeless women who also identified as lesbian, with mental health issues or learning difficulties or drug and alcohol issues. We’ve also seen the closure of Roshni’s refuge for Black and Minority Ethnic and Refugee women and many other projects that worked specifically with women – such as with teenage mums, women’s mental health and so on.

All of this increases the demand placed on providers like us. And we’re seeing it.

My other concern is that we risk losing years of experience and expertise that has built up in the voluntary and public sector around this work – some really clued up women are losing their jobs and taking that knowledge with them. When we need to rebuild things again there is a danger that we’ll end up reinventing the wheel from scratch.

We’re also seeing increasing levels of real poverty. Women who can’t make ends meet – who can’t feed themselves or their children. Food banks are popping up locally and there is a really visible increase in the number of people homeless on the streets and begging. There’s also a noticeable increase in the number of places like Bright House and Speedy Cash appearing on the high street and we’re working hard to deliver financial literacy programs for the women we work with to keep them from getting into even more financial difficulty. We’re helping them to apply for crisis loans and grants to cover essential purposes and one of our workers has pulled in nearly £9,000 for the women we work with through these mechanisms during the last 6 months.

Where are we headed?

It will get worse. I don’t want to be negative – I’m actually a naturally optimistic person. But it will get worse.

The introduction of universal credit will have massive implications for the women we work with. This is going to be a monthly payment – so already a big shift for some of the women we work with, who lead often quite chaotic lives. Specialist domestic abuse organisations are deeply concerned about how it will impact on the viability of their services – which depend on housing benefit to fund their refuges – as this will be cut and will be paid directly to the claimant rather than the landlord. The implication could be more refuges shutting their doors leaving women with even less support that we see currently. There are other cuts coming in at the same time and the changes to child maintenance also cause some concern as women who cannot reach agreement with their ex-partner will be dis-incentivised from claiming.

So the dark clouds are gathering.

But against this backdrop I’m seeing something else happening too. Anger. Women are starting to rally and shout out about the things that they don’t like. I don’t know if this is coincidence (as the things that women are shouting most loudly about are actually not the things that I’ve discussed so far) but there is definitely an increasing minority of women in Nottingham who want to become more than armchair feminists (for want of a better term). I think that’s what we’re seeing nationally as well? The recent ‘no to page 3’ campaign is a good example.

Maybe it’s not a coincidence. Maybe you can only squeeze women so far and then when you go further, harder then something starts to happen, like a chain reaction. Maybe when women see nothing but white, middle-aged, middle-class men speaking for them then this triggers something inside that makes us want to shout louder – to be heard. Maybe when you kick women out of work and force them to lower their aspirations it gives them time to agitate from the sidelines and get involved with campaigns on a voluntary basis. Who knows?

Actually one thing I think we do know is that the women who are being squeezed the most at the moment are also the least able to be heard – so we’ve all got a responsibility to help them to raise their voices.

What it means in Nottingham and for us at the Women’s Centre in particular is that we’re no longer content with being a service provider. We want to help women to be heard. To that end we’re helping local women to organise some really exciting feminist events in Nottingham next autumn and if anyone wants to be a part of this please speak to me. The theme of the programme of events is ‘what works for women’.

I’m pretty sure that austerity doesn’t.”

………………………………………………………………………………

Melanie was interested in how academics can support their local women’s sector. She felt that the most important thing academics could do was help the sector with research. Staff in the women’s sector don’t often have the time to even look up from their day jobs in order to focus on research. However, these workers have a vast range of untapped knowledge about the issues that women are facing today. This is the kind of knowledge that could usefully feed into policy making at a local and national level, if there were people who could help the sector to tap into it properly, draw the bigger picture and join the dots. Melanie also expressed that there could and should be potential to share learning from different areas, with academics researching what works well for women in other parts of the country or globe.

Melanie also described how her Women’s Centre is often approached by students wanting to do research on women’s issues, but the past experience of the Centre has been that offering students support doesn’t always result in being included in that research or included in feedback, or even given copies of the end results. Such disappointing experiences have made the Centre less willing to work with students in the future, not least because it costs them staff time and money, for, what seems like little benefit.

On a more practical level, Melanie pointed out that there are always ongoing policy consultations, research projects and evaluations which academic researchers could help with on a voluntary basis – either staff or students. Melanie felt the women’s sector in general could benefit from such voluntary support and that academics would have the opportunity to do research which could directly contribute to improving the situation for women and children across the UK.