Group of women in the early days of the women's movement at the women's information centre


Then and now: International Women’s Day

The other day I met someone who told me about her experience, maybe 30 years ago, of hesitating outside the door of the Women’s Information Centre in Reading. She was plucking up the courage to join the ‘Monday Night Group’. It was a lesbian social group – and was where she first came out.

Being a founder of the Women’s Information Centre (WIC), and its first paid worker, it was lovely to be reminded of the difference we were able to make, simply by providing space and being there. WIC also hosted the Reading Rape Crisis Line, and other groups and services. Lots of women came to us for free pregnancy testing. They knew that with the result (whether a disaster or delight) they would get a non-judgemental listening ear and a cup of tea.

The picture with this blog is of a group of us in North Wales. We had set up the Bangor Women’s Room, and subsequently the first Rape Crisis line in the area. We were being filmed for a television programme (I am on the floor on the left of the picture).

We ran the services ourselves, having realised through our consciousness-raising groups, just how many of our friends, peers and neighbours had lives seriously impacted by abuse and violence. None of us had expected to hear about quite so much historic abuse on the rape crisis helpline.

Today we are familiar with the headlines. But not so long ago there was almost no awareness of what was happening behind closed doors.

For those early women’s services – by and for women –  there was no formal training. But we always worked to the principles of believing and offering support on a woman’s own terms, in a way that was non-judgemental and confidential. Things have changed a lot since then. But I’ve been really pleased to be able to work with Women’s Aid and Welsh Women’s Aid locally and nationally, and Rape Crisis organisations – still there for women.

Sad that the work is still needed, but brilliant to see the rolling out of the Women’s Aid’s change programme – The Change that Lasts – that brings together the best of current, informed practice, with those principles of recognising the strength and wisdom of survivors.  Building on what works, to support long-term independence and freedom from fear and violence.

This is an innovation which resonates powerfully with the way women supported each other all those years ago.

On International Women’s Day, March 8th, I will be thinking back to the amazing women I have worked with over the years. At a time of devastating cuts to women’s services, we are still needed.

And I will also be thinking of those whose lives were never the same (in a good way!) after they walked through the door of the Women’s Information Centre.

And, of course, I will remember those who didn’t survive.