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A fighter in exile

The Sunday Times, August 17 1986

Erin Pizzey, who pioneered women's refuges in the Seventies, has retired to New Mexico. BRIAN DEER found a changed woman

"UGH," gasps Erin Pizzey, as if the cup of hot English tea she is drinking has been salted rather than sugared. "The American woman is an appalling species. She doesn't cook. She doesn't look after the children. She is a revolting nuisance as far as I am concerned."

Pizzey, now 47 and more or less in exile, sprawls uneasily in a low wooden armchair on the porch of her New Mexico home, one leg propped up on a pine coffee table. The scenery that surrounds her might have mellowed another woman. Her house stands in an expensive private estate 12 miles from Santa Fe, the state capital and the south west's fastest growing tourist resort. A few hundred yards beyond the fence that marks out her land rise the first steep foothills of the Rockies.

But Pizzey appears unmoved by the beauty of the setting, and even in the 80F heat is not practised at keeping cool. "Women have all the power and men have very little," she carries on. "Men die young and spend most of their lives trying to pay the mortgage. A woman sits at home with money in her pocket. She can choose to work, and she always could."

As an occasional journalist herself, Pizzey's performance relies on an aggressive but professional charm. And in 15 years of being a minor public figure, there has never been any shortage of simpering reporters keen to help her out. Supposing her to be some sort of feminist, they have always offered her an easy ride.

"Everybody thought I was left-wing because that's where all the caring comes from," she says in a perplexed voice. "I am, in fact, nothing of the sort. I am a very old-fashioned conservative. My priorities are my home, my husband and my cooking."

Pizzey is of course famous for her work with battered wives in the early 1970s. If she didn't actually discover domestic violence she was at least the person who forced it forward as a major social problem. Her bold act in setting up Chiswick Women's Refuge in 1972 led to a series of celebrated court cases in which Pizzey took on the hostile local council.

Newspaper libraries have cuttings by the boxful which lay bare the Pizzey past: how she was born in China in the year the last war broke out, was traumatised by life with her feuding parents, was married once and later divorced, and is now a runaway in Santa Fe with a husband, Jeff Shapiro, who is 20 years her junior.

Throughout her public career Pizzey has been a relentless fighter. Councils. judges, social workers and government departments have all joined battering husbands as objects of her anger.

"People come to me for help and I have to fight for them," she says of the endless storms that gather around her. "Then I realise that I am in the middle of a pitched battle that's been going on for a very long time and I have to take the pressure off the person who is probably absolutely fatigued."

Even in New Mexico she has not abandoned this pursuit. In recent weeks, she has provided a safe house for a woman who has absconded from Britain with a "tug of love" foster child. Although the child, a black girl aged 8, is a ward of the High Court, Pizzey has decided that, whatever British justice might say, the girl will not be returned to her father.

When Pizzey left Britain to write novels four years ago, it had become clear that the self-confident determination that leads Pizzey to take such actions was increasingly directed at those who should have been her friends. Now she has only contempt for the women's movement, or "that bunch of smell lesbians" as she gleefully describes them.

Her attacks on women, however, are matched by a brusque antagonism towards almost everybody else. Britain, she explains, is an "arsehole country", where the only place worth staying is London's Savoy Hotel. "It's just a very boring, dull, grey place now," she says of England, pausing to sip her tea.

Santa Fe is a tolerant town, where the culture fuses Indian, Hispanic and Anglo traditions, but even her neighbours get short shrift. "They are roughnecks around here," she says, looking across to neighbouring plots, where the likes of lawyers and doctors live. "This is the biggest house here and the women are appallingly envious."

To help her survive the isolation, Pizzey is collecting around her the family she dominates. Besides Shapiro, there is her daughter Cleo, aged 24, grandchildren Kita and Amber, her "son" Russ, who is in his 20s, black and is not related by blood. Then there is Lucy, a 23-year-old student, Frank, 28, a visiting missionary, and Chad, 9, a sort of boy-from-next-door.

Challenging the world, of course, can take a terrible toll. Her own domestic life is anything but violent and yet Pizzey seems battered and almost broken by the conflicts she has sought. Despite her cheerful attacks on her former foes, the occasional caustic humour cannot disguise the change.

Pizzey these days seems tired. For four months lately she has been ill in bed and now has such trouble with her left leg that she needs to keep it constantly rested. "Well, it has all ruined my health," she says, in the commendably blunt manner with which she habitually confronts the truth.

"I have always had very high blood pressure and when I was still in England my doctor warned me that I was at risk of having a heart attack," she explains, as some of her eight dogs settle around us in the boiling noontime shade. "But Jeff said: 'I am taking you away from all this,' and so here we are."

It could have been an ideal home were it not for the way she is. The neighbours, she says, are shooting her dogs, and she feels it is time to move once more. Money is running out and the house is up for sale.

"When we leave here we are going to buy a 2,000-acre ranch in the desert where nobody can trouble us," she says, getting up to go and look at something in the kitchen. "We are going to have a machine gun and we will be able to kill people and bury them, and nobody would know they were there."

Topic: Erin Pizzey


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