Written by Holly Smith, Project Archivist for the Women’s Aid Federation England Archive within the University of Leeds Special Collections.
One of the most recent collections acquired by the University of Leeds Special Collections is the Women’s Aid Federation England (WAFE) Archive. This is an incredibly exciting collection, documenting the charity’s approaches to tackling domestic abuse from its radical beginnings in the 1970s right through to modern day. We will be pulling together this archive over the course of a 30-month Wellcome Trust funded project, and we look forward to sharing our progress and finds as we go along.
The WAFE Archive goes back to 1974, when Women’s Aid was formally established. They emerged out of the Women’s Liberation Movement of that time, and were then known then as the National Women’s Aid Federation (NWAF). In 1976 Scottish Women’s Aid became a separate federation, and in 1978 further regional federations came in the form of Women’s Aid Federation Northern Ireland, Welsh Women’s Aid and Women’s Aid Federation England. It is from this point that our archive begins to tell the story of WAFE and specifically of England’s domestic violence movement.
Women’s Aid federations were initially seen as radical activist groups, raising awareness of taboo subjects such as domestic abuse and gendered violence, and demanding equality in a world where women’s voices were still heavily marginalised.
Yet in the span of 20 years, Women’s Aid transformed from an organisation met with scepticism and aggression to one that was highly respected and revered for its original research and expertise on issues surrounding domestic abuse – they even held their 30th birthday celebrations at 10 Downing Street. This just shows how hard they worked to make people sit up and listen.
Women’s Aid Federation England’s main role is being the coordinating body for local domestic violence services. Many of these services are refuge centres that take in women and children fleeing violent homes – a concept spearheaded by Women’s Aid from their foundation in the mid-1970s.
Our archive not only represents the stories of these refuges and domestic violence services on the ground, it also highlights the broad spectrum of work conducted by WAFE nationally. As an organisation, WAFE provides training and resources, conducts original research into the experiences of women and children suffering abuse, lobbies and campaigns for changes to legislation, and acts as a consultant for government officials, legal figures and academics.
This is all represented in the archive: portrayed through newsletters, meeting minutes, surveys, conference papers, correspondence and publications – all working to build up a picture of how WAFE operated on numerous fronts, and continues to do so today.
WAFE will celebrate its 50th year in 2024, by which time our project aims to have produced a fully accessible catalogue that documents the amazing history of this organisation. This archive tells a story of women’s activism and solidarity – a message that is still as relevant today as it was in the 1970s.