Abuse of women: It’s an old story

It’s 6.15am on the shortest day of the year. I sit in my studio, my plan to wrap Christmas presents, but my mind is elsewhere. I pick up my fountain pen to write — a long term habit from examinations at university. Outside, remarkably, the birds sing in the dark murk, perhaps prompted by the myriad Christmas lights left on overnight — oh, what a waste of energy, poor planet!

I reflect on the words of Jenny Harries, Head of the UK Health Security Agency, who said that Omicron is probably the most significant event since the start of the pandemic and will lead to a staggering number of cases. The implications of her words still resonate in my head. My thoughts go immediately to the Annual Council Meeting (ACM) 2022. Can it happen? By the time you read this we will know the answer.

Two years ago, on the eve of the ACM 2020, I drafted the following to close the meeting that never happened:  “The shadow of the Coronavirus looms large. We are [maybe] on the  brink of [another] unprecedented health event”. How apt those words still seem two years on! Or maybe, just maybe, the vaccine will this time make a difference?

I am in awe of the magnificent creation and roll out of the vaccine (driven by the significant innovation of one female British scientist, Professor Sarah Gilbert) and the equally impressive take-up that will, surely, ultimately lead to the end of the pandemic.

I have read more during the last 18 months. The latest book to fall on to my lap, or rather my pillow, at bedtime is the story of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll.  Was it just a coincidence that as soon as I started to read, the same story appeared in an article in a magazine and was the subject of a new drama broadcast on Boxing Day — A Very British Scandal?. Intriguingly, she was buried next to her first husband in Surrey’s Brookwood Cemetery, plot 119.

The story reminded me starkly of the journey of our once Send Inspired WI member Sally Challen, who suffered intense coercive control abuse from her husband over a lengthy period, served a substantial part of her sentence for murdering him and was eventually released when the true circumstances emerged.

The abuse of women has been significantly exacerbated by Covid lockdowns and has been forefronted by NFWI Wales in its ongoing NO MORE Violence Against Women campaign, for which Bagshot WI member Rita Freeman won third prize for her T-shirt logo design. Well done Rita! We as WI members must continue to raise our voices on this issue.

But the controlling behaviour of men over women (and, it has to be said, although less so, of women over men) is not a new story. It  has been told many times and yet it so often goes unnoticed.

Another novel I read recently, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, written by the 28-year-old Anne Brontë in 1848, raises the issue of the behaviour of the abusive, brutal, alcoholic, unrepentant husband, Arthur Huntingdon, at a time when wives where perceived merely as their husbands’ chattels. The novel was universally denigrated when published for its supposed misrepresentation of male behaviour! This novel deserves the accolade of the first feminist novel, and is as relevant today as it was then.

The WI has campaigned long and hard with many mandates focussing on violence against women. As WI members we embrace the objects that benefit the lives of women and their community and we must continue to do so in whatever ways we can. I know that you can do this for you have been improving the lives of women in so many different ways, particularly over the last two years.

It has been said that a pandemic such as the one we are currently experiencing is a two- to-four-year episode. At worst we are half-way through, at best we are nearly home. Maybe the latter is becoming a little more possible?

As March dawns and as the clocks spring forward, let us, as an organisation, spring into a new tomorrow.

Carol A. Gartrell
Federation Chairman

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