Three essays on violence: Why are some men violent to some women?



One in four women experience domestic violence over their lifetimes and around one in ten women suffer domestic violence in any given year. Two women a week are killed by a violent partner or ex-partner. How is this violence on this scale possible?

Eddie (not his real name) is in his late thirties, a skilled building worker albeit presently unemployed. He is smoothly-dressed and charming. Yet he is far from content; his hair is greying from the temples, he has worry-lines on his face and white cotton is poking through the cuffs of his dark grey suit. He would like to be helping his children with their homework, reading them bed-time stories but his wife Kate (not her real name) has refused for two years to allow him to see them. “I was part of the Jackanory generation”, he says, “the Tiswas generation”, before reeling off several other names of the TV programmes of his and my youth.

Eddie’ wife Kate is also unemployed, never having returned to work after their children were born. She relies on benefits and very irregular contributions to the family budget from Eddie. She responds enthusiastically when Eddie asks to see the children’s school reports. “He is their father”, she says, “he ought to be interested in them”.

Kate suffered a series of injuries. On the first occasion, Kate was seen in hospital with an abrasion beneath her left eye, a second time the police noted injuries (unspecified) on her face. A third time, she complained to her General Practitioner (GP) of two weeks of headaches caused by Eddie slapping her. The list then goes on, through bruises to her thigh, injuries to her chest and stomach. Eddie wants to tell me how the slap occurred. He blames it on provocation from Kate. It was the morning after their eldest son’s second birthday, and he had just spent £1000, the windfall of two weeks’ work, on food and drink, and alcohol for the adult guests. “It was my child’s birthday”, he tells me, “It should have been the best day of my life”. One of the guests was wearing revealing clothes and danced with him; he and his wife argued. The following morning, he complains, his wife was jealous and accused him of having an affair with the guest. On his own account, he hit Kate, deliberately, hard on the side of her face.

From Love to Romance

Forty years ago, Dave Widgery, a Marxist, and a frequent contributor to the socialist-feminist magazine Spare Rib, tried to explain how it was that violence was even possible between two people who loved each other. The answer, Widgery suggested, could be found in the subtle transition from the wildness of love to the stability of romance. Love depends on the intimacy of sex, he wrote:

“Sexual love is the movement that breaks the rules; an uprising of the senses that abolishes propriety. Time alters. A gasp lasts an hour, a night separates into heaps of minutes, a conversation from bar to bed to bus stop and has it been a fortnight or a day? Objects floor you with sudden meanings; a weed becomes a flower beside a canal that is an ocean. A shell swells with feelings. Touches echo, nerves misbehave, hands ricochet. Eyes kindle and melt in a world of constantly altering surfaces. Love offers a glimpse of the most intimate communication that we have experienced. Everything that’s said about love is true, except the happy ending.”

When the subjectivity and intensity of love are “mutual”, Widgery wrote, “it is neither smothering nor bossy … Lovers can teach each other to trust their feelings and their bodies. It is a moment of shared aloneness, of laying down masks and disregarding appearances. Lovemaking is for delight and pleasure and surprise.” But love is not a static condition, especially not in a privatised, marketised economy.

The unruliness of love, Widgery continued, represents a subtle threat to the planned quality of market relationships. “It is unpredictable, disorderly and bad for industrial relations. It is too simple and too difficult and doesn’t consume enough.” Love itself sells no greetings cards, purchases no marriage licenses, it drives no-one to work in the mornings. “For the effective growth of commerce, it should occur only once in life, its emotions must be surrounded with regulations, icing sugar and lace.”

Romance, in Widgery’s thinking is a diminished, desensitised condition, a manageable kind of relationship, controlled by the rhythms of supply and demand. Love, Widgery wrote, “has been turned into something quite different, a mouldy, consoling sort of emotion which, for men, is made palatable by bouts of ‘sexy’ sexuality which must be purchased or forced rather than discovered. Sex itself must be turned into work, with its own rules and games. It is forced back into the black sack of marriage, a contract to feel in a matter whose very essence lies in its voluntary nature …”

Sylvia Feredici, shaped like Widgery by the left of the late 60s and early 70s, has a similar feel for the ways in which capitalism constantly erodes the spontaneity of sexual joy: “No matter how many screams, sighs and erotic exercises we make in bed, we know that this is a parenthesis and tomorrow both of us will be back in our civilized clothes (we will have coffee together as we get ready for work). The more we know that this is a parenthesis which the rest of the day or week will deny, the more difficult it is for us to turn into ‘savages’ and ‘forget everything’ (Federici, 2012, 23-24)

Common to both these accounts is an idea of sexual relationships under capitalism: expressive but falsely so, not liberated but continuously undermined by the regimentation of the working week.

Widgery continued: “’Love withers under constraint’, Percy Bysshe Shelley once wrote. But capitalism is a system which turns away from constraint, preferring constant, empty expression. “Love does not wither, it sprouts unreal blooms, a tired romanticism which is a self-defeating fuss. Attempting to nurture a private exotic zone which escapes from the general pressure of society, it collapses into its own overweight luxuriance…”

This language of unreal blooms and overweight luxury reminds me of nothing so much as Eddie’ extravagant gifts for Kate, the hundreds of pounds he spent on their child’s birthday party, the knee-length boots he bought her one Christmas, loud, public declarations of romantic love, which turned out to be the mere preludes of periods of further violence.

There is a very short path from romance to violence, Widgery argued;

“Ordinary love is locked up in its own company, given guards called Jealousy and Fidelity, taken out in public once a month, and stifles to death beneath the TV and the nappies. The underside of love surfaces and passion now wants its penalties. A once equal love capsizes and itself becomes the subject of the division of labour. The man is the human being who has to be kept fuelled and sustained, fit to do his stuff in the outside world …”

“Love can quickly become a species of tyranny, a word offered and withheld like a dog’s biscuit. A word that turns suddenly into a slap, a trap, a threat … Not just broken alcoholic men but the smart young executives find violence sexy when the fun has gone out of love …” (Widgery, 1972)

In Widgery’s account, the slap or the threat is but the conclusion to a more pervasive kind of controlling behaviour which serves to prioritise men’s needs over women’s. Any experience of complaints of domestic violence confirms the truth of this observation. Millions of women are caught up in relationships in which their needs are systematically deprioritised, in which the man simply does just demand that she look after the children while he goes out of the home, controls her access to her family and to her friends, and makes her life but an extension of his. “Love is the only equation where 1 + 1 = 1 because the woman equals naught” (Suzanne Broger, quoted in McGregor, 1980)

According to the biologist Stephen Pinker, “Domestic violence is the backstop in a set of tactics by which men control the freedom, especially the sexual freedom of their partners”. He places it on a continuum between chaperoning and chastity belts, segregation by sex, and female genital mutilation (Pinker, 2011, p407). The common theme is the controlling of female sexuality.

Eddie tells me that he and Kate had a very active, sexual relationship, with sex punctuating their reconciliations. But sex was also a recurring conflict-point, with Kate complaining that Eddie was controlling her, making sexual innuendos about members of her family and flirting with her friends.

Not every unequal, controlling relationship ends in violence; but the logic of violence is that it is always in the background, always the final method of enforcing a man’s control over a woman. Where one adult wishes to control another and restrict them for example from leaving their home; the situation itself provides the man with the temptation of physical force.

Having listened to Eddie and Kate, I do not believe that he ever found the violence, in Widgery’s words, “sexy”. But neither was there any suggestion that he regretted it. The fun, certainly, had gone out of their love. Eddie’ repeated justification was that Kate was simply and entirely responsible for the violence. She became excited, she lost control of herself. When she did so, she required to be restrained. She was argumentative; violence (in his account of their relationship) was his release.

From Desire to Hatred

Does physical violence require a hatred of women (“misogyny”)? The most extraordinary description of misogyny in history is Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies, a collection of the diaries, biographies and novels of the generation of students and former officers or would-be-but-too-young soldiers who formed the Freikorps movement in the aftermath of German defeat in the First World War. Many of the Freikorps would later form the early cadres of Nazism. Among those whose memoirs Theweleit cites are Manfred von Killinger, a veteran of a Prussian military academy, later a leader of the Nazi SA and then Nazi Prime Minister of Saxony from 1933, Hermann Erhardt, another SA leader who was forced into exile following the Night of the Long Knives, Rudolf Höss, latterly commandant at Auschwitz.

Theweleit notices that the Freikorps were not merely anti-socialist, they were also repetitively hostile to women. In their imagination, there were was a good (sexless) “White”, woman, who might be a nurse, a mother or a sister. “Red” women, by contrast, were Communists and whores, women whose sexual attractiveness overwhelmed men, such as one fictional “Red Marie”: “She had a noble figure and the wild grace of a free-born animal, and she stirred men’s senses whenever she appeared … She was clearly trying to make fools of the German spy-hunters” (Theweleit, 1987, p184). Even the White Woman should ordinarily be ignored (the memoirs are von Killinger and his generation are almost completely silent as to their relationships with their wives). But this is nothing as compared to be Red Woman. Threatening to engulf men in an uncontrollable longing, Red Woman had to be raped, beaten or killed. The crime of the Weimar Republic was that it empowered the lascivious Red woman, while failing to protect the White woman’s sexual purity. The virtue of proto-fascism was that it legitimised war against socialist woman.

What makes Theweleit’s account memorable is the volume of material he found containing these themes of repression, release, and violence against women. Here is one former Freikorps supporter for example, Erich Balla, writing in 1932 about his adventures ten years earlier in the Baltic area, and a particular encounter with two Latvian women suspected of helping the Red Army: “The dull thudding of clubs is heard. Both women lie dead on the floor of the room, their blood exactly the same colour as the roses blooming in extravagant profusion outside the window.” Another scene end: “The last body they ride past seems to be that of a woman. But it’s very hard to tell, since all that’s left is a bloody mass, a lump of flesh that appears to be completely lacerated with whips and is now lying within a circle of trampled, reddish slush”. “With their screams and filthy giggling,” wrote Kurt Eggers in his novel Rebel Mountain, “vulgar women excite men’s urges. Let our revulsion flow into a single river of destruction. A destruction which will be incomplete if it does not also trample their hearts and souls.” (Theweleit, 1987, pp 183, 189 229). His book fills with scenes of this sort, the humdrum, literary pornography of the far Right.

Theweleit was, like Widgery, an activist in the political campaign of the 1960s. The recurring contrasts which interwar German writers drew between their conventional, bourgeois wives, asexual, pure, and anonymous, and the shrieking, castrating whores who were their opponents, was for Theweleit but a colourful exaggeration of paler distinctions which he insisted were common throughout modern, capitalist society. The generation of the Freikorps, did not learn misogyny in the war, he insisted, the origins of this attitude went back to the “self-restraints” learned by the merchant class in Europe over the preceding four centuries.

Does any of this help to explain the relationship between Eddie and Kate? The Freikorps were by any historical standard an untypical generation, Rudolf Höss ended up running an extermination camp, and most men who are violent to women do not end up carrying out crimes on this epic scale. And yet … the whole point about the Holocaust was that the men who carried it out were also, in the title of Christopher Browning’s famous account of the soldiers who carried out the Holocaust, “Ordinary Germans” (Browning, 1993), members of the working class and the petty bourgeoisie, people who were married and had children, who kept pets at home and fussed over them, people whose lives were as banal and commonplace as any other generations. What made genocide possible was  the maelstrom of war, failed revolution, inflation and recession. Without the crisis of the 1920s and 1930s, fascism has not taken state power, and inter-personal hatred has not taken the same, systematic form.

Lundy Bancroft blames domestic violence on the socialisation of young men, who are taught from an early age that controlling a woman is the way to make her love them. Until the late 1980s, he insists, most countries’ law systems did not punish husbands who beat their wives. The monotheistic religions sanction violence against women, he observes, as do countless films and pop songs and even children’s stories. The chief culprits for domestic violence, he argues, are the subtle but pervasive values which promote violence against women (Bancroft, 2002, pp316-25).

“The violence which women suffer in their private relationships”, Aileen McColgan writes, “accounts for the most significant aspect of their potential interaction with the the criminal justice system. Much of that potential interaction does not reach the courtroom, most incidents of violence against women going unreported or, even if unreported, unprosecuted” (McColgan, 2000, p197)

Even to speak of domestic violence, as Bancroft does, as something which was covertly sanctioned by countless legal systems in the past risks minimising the way in which it remains unpunished. I am not the only barrister who will take to their grave the memory of their first day in the criminal courts. In my case it meant representing a man was accused of assaulting his partner whose injuries included bruises, cracked ribs, and a red bite mark a little larger than a 50 pence piece across one side of her face. Trying to see the case from my client’s perspective, I couldn’t understand why they had charged him only with assault, for which the maximum sentence is 6 months, when on the papers the injury was bad enough to be grievous bodily harm, potentially carrying years in prison. The answer, I now know is that prosecutors almost never charge the protagonists of domestic violence with more than common assault. The justification is that the charge keeps the offence in the Magistrates Court, as magistrates, unlike juries, will convict on slender evidence. And, of course, many battered women are reluctant to be witness in a prosecution.

Later I practised in family law and met the women whose partners ended up in the criminal courts. “The problem with the police”, one survivor told me, “is that they always get it wrong. If you try to use them to take back control in a relationship, they overdo it, and either or your partner could end up in prison. But when it matters, and you really need their help, they never come.”

While the proto-Nazis of Thewleit’s books dreamed of killing women; Eddie’ motive was the different one of disciplining his otherwise uncontrollable wife. Kate talked too much; she was from a poorer background than him. She was not restrained; she was prone to rages. She was responsible for his violence; it was always her fault. She was irrational; she accused him of having affairs but her accusations were simply incredible. In his version of events, she drove him on to hit her.

Some of Eddie’ stories contain an echo of the Freikorps’ fantasies about Red Marie. Kate was constantly trying to have sex with him, he tells me. He described to me another battle, during which police officers came to the house and saw injuries on Kate’s face. “We had been intimate”, his story begins, “when for no reason at all she started grabbing my hair. Of course, I had to stop her, so I grabbed her hands and took them away. As I held her, she fought me, and that’s who come there were scratches on her face.”

I asked Eddie whether his son had witnessed him slapping Kate, the morning after the birthday party that had gone wrong? His son (who was still a toddler) was present, Eddie accepts, and watched its aftermath closely. Eddie explained what happened: “After I slapped her, I looked at him and said: ‘this is what you’ll have to put up with from bitches.’”

I do not believe that we have to choose between Widgery’s explanations and Theweleit’s, rather they seem to me to reflect two different moments within a single set of relationships.

One thing which does rings true to me about Widgery’s account is its tone, which is one of regret. “How the economic set-up of the family mutilates the emotions of love and the unequal relations of the sexes turns a particular pair of lovers into sparring partners are not the most important crimes of a system which can starve whole continents and destroy and make ugly entire cities. But it is one of the saddest…” Most men are not violent in relationships; relatively few of those who are will vocalise the deep misogyny of Eddie’ final remark to his son. Violence is not innate to masculinity. Widgery’s basic message is that in conditions not of our mutual control, the best and worst of people are closely connected.

There seems to have been a recurring structure to Eddie’ violence, if not quite the pattern he is willing to acknowledge (in which his violence was caused by her hormones, her rages, her jealousy). More than once, Eddie’ violence followed moments of gift-giving on his part. The very first occasion began on New Year’s Day, which he proposed to celebrate by purchasing Kate a pair of knee-high boots. In the shop, he took a phone call. It was, he says, from his sister. Refusing to tell Kate who it was that was calling him, she left the shop. He followed her down the road. Catching up with her, he says, he pulled her face to his. This accidental clash of heads, and he insists despite all the evidence that it was accidental, occurred with enough forceful enough to have broken her skin. A police officer came upon the two of them, shouting, and insisted Kate go to hospital. The bruise was noted by the doctors in A+E. The “abrasion” recorded by a doctor, Eddie describes (almost proudly) as “the only time I ever caused my wife a black eye.”

To see the origin of male violence in romance is not to prettify behaviour which was aggressive, violent and must at times have been terrifying. When Kate returned from the hospital, she found that Eddie had painted angry messages for her on the walls of their home, and gone through her clothes ripping them to pieces.

The Family: where Love deteriorates

There are other explanations we could use for violence. Near the end of his piece, Widgery began to say that as well as romance and capitalism, he also blamed domestic violence on the institutionalisation of love by the nuclear family:

The family is a convenient self-financing unit of competitive consumption and indoctrination, the original sweatshop where production and repair and reproduction are carried out by an unsafe, unpaid and under-appreciated women workforce. For the state is it cheap at the price. How much easier than spending on good public transport or comprehensive group care for young children or community centres and restaurants which provided much better and cheaper food and entertainment than the commercial outfits if everyone does it at home one by one … (Widgery, 1972)

Widgery is far from the only socialist activist to have spoken about the family as the chief institution shaping sexual relationships under capitalism. Engels’ famous history of the working-class family in 1840s Manchester, which was then being  undermined by industrialisation and urbanisation, poor quality housing, and the pressures on women and children to earn wages, has something of the same character. “In all directions”, Engels wrote, “the family is being dissolved by the labour of wife and children, or inverted by the husband’s being thrown out of employment and made dependent upon them for bread” (Engels, 1845, p208).

Lisa Vogel’s book, Marxism and the Oppression of Women gives further context to this emphasis on family. Vogel suggests that the family plays a role in the reproduction of labour (i.e. the process by which one generation of producers is succeeded by another). The state may educate children for free, but, as in the example which Widgery gives, it is parents who feed children for two meals a day, house and clothe them, pay for their transport, and (increasingly) their education. The costs of childcare could perfectly easily be borne by any of capital, labour or the state, any of these options are possible under capitalism. The kind of capitalism we have chosen is however one in which the disproportionate burden of childcare is borne by the family, i.e. by workers themselves. This saves “business” a fortune. The family is not just a device for the privatisation of childcare, Vogel writes, it is also a vehicle by which time is allocated unequally. The physical experience of maternity remains a task which only women can do. But for no reason other than our mutual socialisation to treat gender roles as fixed, we do all just assume that men will do the greater share of paid work, and women the greater number of hours in the family.

“In principle, women’s and men’s differential roles in the reproduction of labour power are of finite duration. They come into play only during the woman’s actual childbearing months. In reality, the roles take specific historical form in the variety of social structures known as the family… As institutionalized structures in actual class societies, the families of a subordinate class ordinarily become major social sites for the performance of the maintenance as well as the generational replacement aspects of necessary labour. Here, then, is one source for the historical division of labor according to sex that assigns men and women different roles with respect to necessary and surplus labor. Generally, women have greater responsibility for the ongoing tasks associated with necessary labor, and especially for work connected with children. Men, correspondingly, often have greater responsibility for the provision of material means of subsistence …” (Vogel, 1983, p146)

In the conclusion to her book, Vogel speak about the withering away of “domestic labour” (i.e. the imbalance between men and women’s domestic work, sharpest of course in childcare). She talks of “reducing” and “redistributing” domestic labour by “transforming it into an integral component of social production in communist society.” (Vogel, 1983, p173-6 and similarly Brown, 2012, pp94-7) Her vision is of socialising the domestic work which is presently privatised. Her argument is not about the need for men to take their share in the family (although this is ultimately implied) rather to insist on the maximum allocation of crèches, childcare, and collective services, reducing the burden of domestic labour on everybody, and lifting it especially for women

Of course, Vogel’s insights are sociologically rather than historically true. They are intended to describe the decaying families of Marx and Engels’ and Widgery’s time, as well as the family patterns of the last thirty years.

Domestic Violence in an Age of Austerity

The family has been changing. All of us have seen the decline of sex for procreation in favour of an idea of sex for pleasure, the proliferation of LGBT relationships and other new family patterns, the impact of austerity in dividing  generations, the increasing number of women working, the persistence of inequality of contribution to childcare and therefore of occupational gender segregation, the passage of equality laws but their undermining by strengthened market relationships.

Here I want to focus on what these dynamics mean only in terms of domestic violence. The proliferation of different kinds of long-term relationships has made it harder to justify the old idea of “the man in charge of the house”. It has defeated the old legal theory that rape was impossible in marriage. Formally, it is much easier for women in relationships to end them and to demand the right to divorce or to live apart. But the increased cost of living and the difficulty of obtaining social housing force people back into abusive relationships. Benefit reforms aggravate this dynamic: as in the case of a family where the man is compelled to leave, making the home under-occupied for the purposes of the bedroom tax. And reforms of the future threaten to make things even worse, including the proposal that under universal credit all benefits will be paid to a single family member, probably a man.

Austerity has led to cuts in the public sector especially, with the public sector contracting by some 400,000 jobs between 2010 and 2013 but this is where the majority of “women’s” jobs are, diminishing women’s economic independence, and aggravating the tendencies towards couples splitting the burden of childcare by getting the woman to reduce her hours and the man to increase his. A person who is tired or cross as a result of their work will break that frustration or anger back into the home, increasing their tenseness in the domestic setting. A person who is bullied at work, or worried about losing their job or their home, is, just as a matter of common sense, more likely to bully emotionally or even hit their partner.

Tiswas, the programme recalled by Eddie, first played on British television in 1974. In that year, a Coalition government went to the electorate asking “Who Governs Britain?” in response to a 16 week pay strike by coalminers during which the country had suffered power shortages and the government had felt compelled to conserve electricity by introducing a three-day working week. In 1974, 62% of Britain’s national income went back to workers in the form of wages (TUC, p3); by 2013 this had fallen to 53%. For a skilled worker, mid-1970s Britain was a relatively equal society, the pay gap between workers and managers on building sites (i.e. where Eddie would work) was less that it had ever been, and radically less than it is now. Workers and junior managers alike lived, in all likelihood, in similar council houses. Their children went to similar sorts of schools, with academic selection constrained, and only ever on ability not income. Where people suffered illness or unemployment, their lifestyles were protected by benefits which – unlike today – covered all of housing and sufficient living expenses. The world in which Tiswas was filmed had been getting steadily more equal for 30 years. Ever since then, it has become less equal. The class to which Eddie belongs, the skilled working class, has suffered a series of economic, political and social defeats, starting in his own sector (construction) with the arrest and jailing of the “Shrewsbury Two” in 1973, and continuing until the present day with the blacklisting of trade unionists.

The context to the relationship between Eddie and Kate was the fabric of their lives under austerity capitalism. Both lived on benefits, Eddie intermittently and Kate continuously. Both of them lived in a world of public set-back and private humiliation. Meeting Eddie, there was an almost tangible sense of his decline defeat, of his inability to find a secure employment setting for his craft skills. They fought about money; they fought about their children. When Eddie hit Kate in front of his son he was in no way exceptional; around 90% of domestic violence between couples is witnessed by their children (Kennedy, 2005, p90).

The widespread acceptance of the principle of women’s equal treatment does not end domestic violence, but makes it appear shameful, and by a bitter irony its very stigma can cause women not to report it, for fear that in doing so, they will have to bring to light some failure on their own part (“If I am to blame for the  violence I have encountered”, I have heard it said, “I can stop it. But if it is the fault of men, there is nothing I can do about it”). If the woman never reports the violence, then how can she force the man to stop? And, if she does not report it, how can she leave the relationship and ever again be properly in charge of her life?


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