In Britain today, women are paying the price for nearly a decade of austerity. Thanks to a global recession and a faltering economy, we’ve seen cuts to domestic violence centers and rising homelessness, and more women find that the justice system does not serve them in protecting their families from evictions or deportations. It did not have to be this way: austerity was a political choice, and one that both Conservatives and Labour must shoulder the blame for. In a further twist of irony, Britain’s newly appointed prime minister, Theresa May, the second woman to enter 10 Downing Street and a former shadow minister for equalities, is likely to worsen, rather than mitigate the impact of austerity policies on women in the United Kingdom.
Since the 2008 financial crash, countless studies have shown that the impact of austerity in Britain has been borne predominantly by women—85 percent of all cuts have affected women more than men according to a study by the Fawcett Society, a British women’s charity. Women with disabilities, black women, working-class women, and single mothers have been the hardest hit. The government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission warns that 2010–2020 will be the first decade since records began that sees a rise in absolute poverty in the United Kingdom, with an irreparable gulf between the rich and poor. When the economy tanks, it will again be women who suffer most. The fight for women’s rights is therefore less a long, slow march, and more like a climbing wall: it is possible to haul oneself up, but also to come crashing down. Vigilance is essential at all times.
The erosion of the welfare state in the United Kingdom and the United States is a direct attack on women’s rights, but boardroom quotas for women make a tidier headline, furthering the false assumption that certain rights to safety and well-being have already been won. Women subjected to austerity are pushed to the margins of mainstream media conversations about feminism. But those at the margins have been pushing back, and grassroots women’s groups have begun to fight—not by voting for parties that have shown little interest in them—but by taking up space, and refusing to budge.
In Peckham, in south London, the campaign group Sisters Uncut were protesting cuts to domestic violence services by occupying a vacant council home for a fortnight. The group’s name is a homage to UK Uncut, a grassroots group that protests tax avoidance and cuts to public services by occupying the offices and shops of businesses that refuse to pay their fair share of tax. In the occupied council home, banners hung on walls, women milled about, chatting. They told me that in April, Sisters Uncut was approached by a woman (let’s call her Alex) with three young children. She was experiencing sexual and domestic violence at the hands of her husband and desperate to leave. The local government body that administers housing told her that it was “reasonable” for her to return to the home she already had—where her perpetrator lived. Sisters Uncut took on her case, tweeting, emailing, and phoning local politicians to get the decision overturned. They publicized the case and mobilized their supporters until the council agreed the decision was wrong and promised to review their policies.
But Alex’s case is not an isolated one. The housing crisis and housing policies in the United Kingdom have created the perfect storm for abuse to thrive. With local budgets slashed due to austerity measures, the axe falls disproportionately on services for the homeless and domestic violence shelters. Women can’t leave partners because shelters have little room for them, and those women who do find a place are then left in limbo, with no home to move into afterward.
Kate Fields, twenty-five, a domestic violence support worker taking part in the occupation, said: “We launched the campaign because we’re sick of Southwark Council failing survivors of domestic violence: 47 percent of people who approach Southwark after being made homeless due to domestic violence are turned away with no help.” Women like Alex, in desperate need of a home to flee to, are instead turned away, only to end up in the streets or go back to their abusers.
Sisters Uncut have fought for years to publicize the issues afflicting women’s services. They meld social media, grassroots organizing, and campaigns that are inclusive, easy to participate in, and difficult to ignore. Responding to how the global recession has dramatically impacted women’s rights and living standards in countries hit by the economic crash, groups like Sisters Uncut are at the forefront of a new kind of feminist campaigning, one that sees women’s well-being as inextricably linked to the economy and social class.
A similar attitude is reflected in the Focus E15 campaign. In 2013, a group of twenty-nine young, single mothers, many of whom were teenagers, were served with eviction notices from the Focus E15 hostel in Newham, east London. The hostel had provided one-bedroom apartments for the women to live in with their children, or while pregnant, after being made homeless. The foyer had also provided training, education, and support to help the women find work. Many of the women in the below-market-rate rooms were studying or engaged in part-time work in the area, and one mother said she was applying for universities in London. When state funding to help vulnerable people live independently was slashed in England, the foyer announced that the hostel would cease to be an appropriate environment for young mothers and children.
Newham Council, tasked with rehousing the women, told them they should expect to be placed outside the borough and city, in towns such as Manchester and Birmingham, hundreds of miles away from their children’s schools, and their families and support networks. Previously, these women would have been placed in temporary housing until they were found local accommodation. Under the new policy, if they refused to take the homes they were offered, they would be deemed intentionally homeless, and evicted from their accommodation with nowhere to go. A change to Newham’s housing policy also meant that working families and people who had served in the armed forces would receive priority over single mothers like the Focus E15 residents. But rather than accept their fate, the women took action: they publicized their predicament and soon rallied around supporters and other activists, in what came to be known as the Focus E15 campaign.
The campaign culminated in September 2014 with an attention-grabbing protest a few minutes’ walk from a busy local commuter station. Coinciding with London’s Open House weekend, where iconic and listed buildings are opened to the public, the Focus E15 activists, now comprising the mothers, locals, and seasoned campaigners, broke into two empty flats in the Carpenters Estate, which had lain empty for years. Walking around the estate, it was remarkable how many windows were boarded up, so close to the 2012 Olympic site, which had promised regeneration and wealth for a poor area. Members of the Tenant Management Organisation (TMO), responsible for the site, told me Newham Council had refused to allow them to rent properties that became empty if families moved out, slowly turning the red-brick estate into a ghost town. Once in, the campaigners decorated the properties with toys, soft furnishings, banners, and posters, and declared their own “Open House.” Outside, green fabric banners decorated with the slogans “These Homes Need People: These People Need Homes” were unfurled, a simple message underlining the absurdity of the situation the mothers and other homeless families in the borough faced.
On a sunny Saturday, the flats were thronged with visitors. One room I went into was being used as an impromptu crèche: babies were happily being entertained by two locals in a former bedroom. The living room had been turned into a “campaign center,” with media phone numbers tacked to the wall, alongside lists of what was needed to make the occupation work—nappies, food, a printer, coffee. What was striking about the flats was their state of repair. Curious visitors who popped in after hearing of the occupation via social media and news coverage were genuinely shocked at how immaculate the decor and fittings were. Wandering around, I noticed the wallpaper looked as good as new, and the kitchen was far better than many I had seen in my own rented flats over the years. The TMO said most flats were the same: perfectly livable, but empty by order of the council. The campaigners pointed out that it would be far easier to move women into these small family homes than ship them miles from their own families, disrupting young children’s lives. The campaign garnered a huge amount of media and local attention, initially through social media, before being picked up by multiple UK papers. In the Guardian, one of the mothers, Jasmin Stone, wrote:
We wanted to participate in Open House to show how many houses sit empty in London and what an easy solution there is to the housing crisis. This crisis, as it is usually covered in the newspapers, is one experienced by the middle classes, whose steady march from private renting to home ownership has been stopped in its tracks by the hugely inflated market. For members of the working class, however, the crisis is much more virulent. It involves not only the prospect of annual rent increases, the impossibility of home ownership and poor-quality housing, but also removal and displacement from the place in which you were born, leading to isolation in a place where you know nobody and opportunities for jobs are non-existent.
The campaign, built up over years and still fighting homelessness and gentrification in Newham, meant that a process that usually happens to women silently was brought to public attention. Families facing homelessness, often single mothers because they comprise the lowest-paid and most vulnerable households, are turned away from council housing offices and left to fend for themselves, or placed in unsuitable hostels miles away from their homes. The Focus E15 campaign challenged this silencing and directly linked it to the rapid development of London due to unsustainably fast growth in housing prices, which has tempted investors in to make a quick buck. Councils, with slashed budgets from central government, abdicate responsibility to vulnerable residents in order to profit from land sales and in the hope that they will lure in more financially flush tenants.
In a third London neighborhood, Hoxton, the New Era estate had long provided affordable housing, but was bought out in March 2014 by an American property development company, Westbrook Partners. Letters sent following the takeover informed the ninety-three families living on the estate that they faced a four-fold increase in rent. For the majority of the residents, this amounted to an eviction notice: few residents, some who had lived on the estate for as many as seventy years, could afford to pay those sums.
Yet again, women led the fight to keep the residents in their homes: Lindsey Garrett, Danielle Molinari, and Lynsay Spiteri rallied fellow tenants and got the word out about the conditions of the takeover. That the Benyon Estate, the family business of the country’s richest member of Parliament, Richard Benyon, had a 10 percent stake in the estate made it easier to argue their case. The women contacted newspapers, organized a demonstration outside Westbrook Partners’ UK offices, and presented a petition with 300,000 signatures to the prime minister. After months of work, the campaign won vocal public support from politicians across the political spectrum, including the then mayor of London, Boris Johnson. For the investors, the level of attention and the volume of bad publicity made their plans untenable: shortly before Christmas, the Benyon Estate pulled out, quickly followed by Westbrook Partners. The estate was sold to Dolphin Square, a charity that is committed to providing affordable homes to low-income people, and tenants were told not to expect rent increases. Recovering from celebrations, Molinari told the BBC: “They underestimated us three women, but also all the residents on the estate, the community spirit and what Hoxton is all about.”
Groups like Sisters Uncut and Focus E15 Mothers are the vanguard of anti-austerity campaigning, refusing to accept cuts that affect women disproportionately. While upper-class feminists may have the option of “leaning in,” working-class women must confront a system that wants to kick them out entirely. These women’s housing occupations represent a struggle over our entire framework of reproductive labor: a rejection of society’s demand that women be good mothers and good workers simultaneously, all while staying out of sight. Instead of accepting the narratives of failure and shame served to them by government and society alike, they are intent on disrupting it.
Confrontational tactics seem likely to escalate as austerity continues and as we navigate the xenophobic aftershocks of Brexit. Back in 2013, the women’s rights organization Southall Black Sisters gathered with supporters and megaphones to stop an immigration raid in London. While the labor of holding a community together through childcare and neighborly assistance has traditionally been seen as a gentle, women’s role, such examples suggest that women are finding it increasingly necessary to confront the state very directly in order to preserve their communities and to be heard.
While the policies of austerity may be temporary (or not, if the Conservatives get their way), their effects on women and children can last a lifetime. Working-class women know this, even as they are too often viewed as the recipients of feminist action rather than as actors in their own right, reliant on middle-class activists to articulate their demands because they are considered too unsophisticated to do so for themselves. In the case of Sisters Uncut, Focus E15, Southall Black Sisters, and others, direct action clearly speaks louder than words.
Dawn Foster is a London-based writer on politics, social affairs, and economics, and the author of Lean Out (2016, Repeater).