March is Women’s history month and co-insides with International Women’s Day on the 8th March. However, 2018 could be renamed as the year of women as there are several landmark anniversaries this year. It is 100 years since the Representation of the People Act was passed on the 6th February 1918, enabling some women (those over age 30 who owned a house) and all men to vote. It is 50 years since the women of Ford’s Dagenham plant campaigned to be paid as skilled workers, leading to the Equal Pay Act in 1970. And this summer marks 130 years since the Match Women’s strike, when the all-female work force of the Bryant & May Match factory in Bow went on strike for better working conditions and created the first significant trade union.
On 24 January I made my way down Barking High Street trying to dodge heavy downpour to the Broadway Theatre, excited about the afternoon ahead. Just over two years ago I’d attended a lecture by Sarah Jackson, co-author of East London Suffragettes, when Sarah had first mentioned setting up a museum dedicated to the women of the East End of London. Sarah, Sara Huws and Judith Garfield have worked tirelessly to create the East End Women’s Museum. I was volunteering at their launch event, welcoming a wide range of guests from London Councillors, Library Managers, Archivists, Activists and community groups.
Speaking at the event, Sara Huws gave thanks to the general public ‘who have shared their personal and family stories. Our mission is to enable those stories to be told’. After two years of creating awareness, curating pop up exhibitions and ploughing through all the admin involved in setting up a museum, the team were thrilled to announce that the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham council have offered the museum a space . At the end of 2019 East End Women’s Museum will have a permanent home next to grade II listed Abbey ruins. ‘We are very excited this museum is gong to be in our borough for everyone in London’ exclaimed Councillor Sade Bright, Cabinet Member for Equalities and Cohesion.
Dr Helen Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst’s Grandaughter, was guest of honour at the event and shared her enthusiasm for the museum. ‘We really do need the East End Women’s Museum to speak to us about the past and the future. I have a personal link with the East End because of Silvia and her work here and I was reflecting on, although she didn’t use that term, intersection. Her values actually epitomize that in the past and that is the spirit that the museum has. Feminism cannot stand with just a few white middle class privileged women, it has to be talking about intersection with other issues. History is part of activism, it is about what we do with it.’ Sarah Jackson thanked everyone involved and summarised a positive and enjoyable afternoon with a line from a Jules Gibb song, Nana was a Suffragette ‘Votes for women were just the beginning, you haven’t seen anything yet’. The museum is asking for donations during Women’s History Month to support their ongoing work, click here if you would like to make a donation.
Years ago, I worked for the CEO of a national newspaper, a large print of Emmeline Pankhurst’s arrest in Manchester adorned her office and we would talk about the Suffragette’s plight. It wasn’t until I went on Rachel Kolosky’s walking tour ‘Belles of Bow’ that I learnt about Emmeline’s daughter Sylvia Pankhurst. The WSPU were becoming increasingly militant and Sylvia was concerned that working class women were not being considered. Moving to Bow, Sylvia set up the East London Federation of Suffragettes, campaigning for the vote for all, including working class men who also didn’t have the right to vote before 1918. Rachel energetically led us round the streets of Bow and pointed out where the Women’s Hall (a cost price restaurant) used to be and the pub they renamed the Mother’s Arms, turning it into a creche. These were on the street where I live and I am immensely proud that my small part of London is home to so much women’s history.
It is fitting that the day after the East End Women’s Museum event, I attended Rachel Kolsky’s book launch, hosted by the Women’s Library at the LSE. In Rachel’s jovial and animated style, she talked us through the places she selected for Women’s London – a guide to great lives and why she chose to feature these particular women, including Minnie Lansbury. A supporter of Sylvia Pankhurst, one of her relatives came along to Rachel’s Bow Belles walks and invited Rachel back to her house to look through old photographs. Rachel describes Bow as ‘a tiny area of London with stories mingling. It is all about links when you go around London. A giant jigsaw puzzle waiting to put pieces together and there is nothing more satisfying when you connect a couple of people’. Rachel’s last story is of Phyllis Pearsall and I had no idea she invented the A to Z. I still prefer using my well worn copy of the famous book to navigate London as it gives me a sense of perspective that I can’t visualise with Google Maps on a small phone screen. Besides, Google Maps clearly doesn’t know London like Mrs Pearsall did as often misses out the small alleyways and back passages in London. I am in awe of a woman who walked around 23,000 streets personally documenting each one.
There are many ways to celebrate Women’s History Month this March. I’ve compiled a comprehensive list on Pinterest but here are a few of my favourite events taking place around London over the next couple of months.
Making her Mark: 100 years of Activism. In collaboration with East End Women’s Museum and Hackney Museum
Women of the East End at Work, Sarah Ainslie photography exhibition, Brady Centre in Hanbury Street
Radicals, Rioters and Rebels in the Fleet Street Precinct – East End Walks with David Rosenberg
Match Women’s Festival on the 30th June, celebrating 130 year anniversary of the first known women’s strike