Women activists: thanks for sharing

One of the biggest problems with gaining recognition for the incredible work of women activists, is getting their stories heard and shared. Over spring/summer 2016, we held three community events to share the heritage and gather more stories. Thanks to everyone who turned up and got involved – the enthusiasm and passion from you all has been incredible.

In April we were guided by a team of craftivists in making mini protest banners dedicated to women of the past.

Craftivists make mini protest banners

Cross-cultural picnic
Also in April we held a cross-cultural picnic at St Hilda’s Community East in Tower Hamlets, sharing food and stories of inspirational women.

Cross cultural picnic at St Hilda's

Women on Wikipedia
In May we held a Women on Wikipedia-a-thon. This resulted in a dozen new stories about women activists being uploaded to the online encyclopedia.

Wikipedia editing event

Women and wikipedia-athon

We can edit wikipediaThe gender bias on Wikipedia is well documented. The fact there are so many more entries about men may be to do with only around 10% of Wikipedia editors being women. In addition, when women are written about the content can be reductive and patronising, as this Buzzfeed article illustrates beautifully.

To address this imbalance we are organising a Women on Wikipedia-athon on Saturday 14th May (2-5pm) at The Mill in Walthamstow.

Some of the stories we’ve uncovered are on Wikipedia, although the content tends to be thin. Others are missing completely. Considering the contribution, courage and dedication of these women, we feel this is wrong.

We invite you to join us for our Wikipedia-athon. You don’t have to have any previous Wikipedia editing experience as we’ll show you the ropes. All you need to do is turn up any time between 2-5pm on Saturday 14th May and we’ll give you a computer, a login and a story to upload. Stay for the full three hours, or just a short while – it’s up to you.

Men and women both welcome.

Where are the white working class activists?

East London used to be a hotbed of white working class women activists. So where are they now?

Match Girls strikers

Up until WW2, East London was thriving with working class women activists, most of whom were white. From the Matchgirls to MillyWiktop and Sarah Wesker, they campaigned against the things that impacted directly on their lives, such as labour rights and housing.

Many of these women were Jewish, most coming from the Russian Empire. In the 70s they passed the mantle to the Bengali community. To this day Bengali women are challenging inequality and fighting to improve their lives and communities.

But what happened to the white working classes?

Our research revealed little about their activities post WW2. Our oral history collection features several interviews with people from working class families, but they have had enough social mobility to no longer campaign on issues that impact them directly. They have a general sense of injustice at the inequalities in the world, and fight for issues not on their doorstep, such as climate change, peace and FGM.

Is it that the Jews moved out, and gentrification moved in, leaving very few white working classes in East London? Or is it, as Paul Mason suggests in The Guardian, white working class culture has been destroyed, and gone with it are its radical thinkers and activists?

There are elements of it in other boroughs – Focus E15 in Newham for example. But in the three boroughs we explored – Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest – we found virtually nothing.

Class is enormously important as it underpins everything. If you’re a woman, you’ll face inequality, but it will be doubled if you’re a working class; if you’re black you’ll face inequality; but it will be doubled if you are working class. Yet while they’re selling This Is What A feminist Looks Like t-shirts in Whistles, I think we’ll be waiting a while for the This Is What A Socialist Looks Like version.


If you think there are white working class women’s groups we’ve missed in these boroughs we’d love to know. Share your thoughts in the comments section below.


Help us design our app

We’re looking for up to 15 girls to help us design a brand new walking tour app, due for release in the Apple and Android stores this summer.

Girls codingThis May (14th and 15th) we’re running a two day workshop for girls aged 10 + years around app design. We want them to come up with some real life concepts for our walking tour app, telling us what it should look like, how it should function and how to make it fun for other young people.

>> Book a place today

As part of the two-day course they’ll get to analyse existing apps, learn about user experience, get to experiment with app design tools and develop their problem solving skills. And of course learn about a fascinating part of local women’s history.

The workshop runs from 10am to 1pm on Saturday 14th and Sunday 15th May at The Limes in Walthamstow. A place on the course can be secured by paying a £5, which is refundable when you turn up to the event.

>> Book a place on the course today

Cross cultural picnic at St Hilda’s

Battle of Cable Street murialOn 11th April we’re running a cross cultural picnic at St Hilda’s East Community Centre. We’d like you to join us.

During our research into women-led activism, one of the things that stood out most is the incredible impact migrant groups have made to East London. The different communities have often fought against the same issues, although often two or three generations apart.

In 1930s it was predominantly Eastend Jews who took on the fascist Black Shirts, which culminated in the Battle of Cable Street. A two generations later, through groups like Women Unite Against Racism, Bengali women were fighting the BNP. And both in the 30s and 70s, migrants campaigned for better housing rights. Notably women were at the forefront of these these protests.

Unfortunately history does a bad job at remembering these women. Even feminist narratives often overlook them, focusing on white middle class activists, like Emmeline Pankhurst. Yet these migrant women have been both brave and successful, and deserve to be recognised.

To help rediscover these hidden stories, we’re teaming up with the Boundary Women’s Group at St Hilda’s. We’re running a cross cultural picnic, to share stories of protest amongst generations and communities. If you represent a group of women, know women who might be interested, or would simply like to come yourself, please get in touch.

The picnic is free, but we’re asking everyone to bring a dish from their community to share. We’ll also ask people to bring along a story of how they have changed their community, or one of someone else who has inspired them.

Let’s not keep the stories of these incredible women hidden any longer!


Photo: Reading Tom

Craftivism: come make a mini protest banner

Betty Ford Blommers bannerCraft and protest have been long linked. From the beautifully embroidered suffragette and trade union banners, to the provocative Craftivist Collective. And it’s something that women have always been at the centre of.

On Saturday 2nd April we’ll be at The Mill in Walthamstow getting people to make a mini protest banner, inspired by the stories of women activists we’ve collected so far. The banners will be hung at the site of activism, like an alternative blue plaque, while others will be used in our exhibition this summer.

We’ll be using a fairly simple design, so that people of all ages and experiences can join in. We’d particularly welcome young people – boys and girls – so they can learn about the history, and understand where some of their rights and privileges have come from.

We also hope people will come along with stories of their own. We know there are so many incredible women doing amazing work out there. We want to shine a light on as many of them as possible.

Places are free, but limited. For more information, and to book a place, visit our Eventbrite page.



Heathrow 13 march in noble footsteps

There were jubilant scenes outside Willesden Court yesterday as the Heathrow 13 received suspended sentences for their part in last year’s environmental protest, rather than the jail time they’d been told to expect. The 13 included two women from East London – Sheila Menon and Melanie Strickland – who by putting their liberty on the line, followed in the noble footsteps of many women before them.

If the 13 had been given custodial sentences they would have been the UK’s first climate change protestors to be jailed. They would not, of course, be the first protestors to go to prison for their cause. East London in particular has a long tradition of civil disobedience, much of it done by women.

Sylvia PankhurstSylvia Pankhurst
Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragette movement is well known for its acts of civil disobedience. What is less known is that Sylvia Pankhurst broke away from her mother’s group over disagreements around which women should be entitled to the vote. Emmeline was only calling for the vote on the same terms as men, which at that time would leave around 40% of mostly working class women out of the franchise. Sylvia’s connection with the Labour movement led her to the conviction that women from all backgrounds should be allowed to vote, in order to work their way out of poverty. She was jailed many times for her convictions, including enduring the now infamous force-feeding.

Milly Witkop
Fleeing rampant anti-semitism in Russia, Milly Witkop arrived in London aged 17, where she found work in the east end sweatshops. Her early years experiences shaped her radical political beliefs. She became active in the trade union movement, and was resolutely opposed to WW1. In 1916, her anti-military agitation earned her two years in prison.

Muriel LesterMuriel Lester
Muriel Lester was a prominent pacifist during both world wars. She organised prayers to enemy nations, services to pacifist speakers, cheap meals for munitions workers and protection to local Germans and Austrians. She was arrested several times for her political activities. In 1941, under the orders of Churchill, she was detained in Holloway prison for the remainder of the war. The Prime Minister did not like this out-spoken woman undermining his efforts!

After the war she continued her peace campaigning, including through the atom age and Spanish Civil War. She was nominated twice for a Nobel Peace Prize, and has been dubbed The Mother of Peace.

Poplar Rebel Councillors
George Lansbury and the Poplar Rebel Councillors are a well documented part of east end political history. What’s less known is that of the 30 Labour Councillors imprisoned for their part in the Poplar Rate Revolt, five were women.

Susan Lawrence and the Poplar Rebel Councillors on their way to Holloway prisonMinnie Lansbury, Susan Lawrence, Julia Scurr, Nellie Cressall and Jennie Mackay stood by their working class principles at great risk to themselves. Standing outside Holloway prison in 1921, Susan Lawrence said to the 10,000 strong crowd of supporters:

“We are here representing a principle which we have to defend as well as the men […] We go cheerfully determined to see this thing through. I hope our example will not be lost on all local authorities throughout the country.”

The women suffered great hardship for their beliefs. Minnie Lansbury developed pneumonia following her imprisonment, and died in 1922. Julia Scurr died five years later aged 57, her early demise attributed to the terrible conditions she endured during her imprisonment.

If you have a story to share of civil disobedience, or any other kind of social-political activism, we would love to hear from you. We are recording oral histories with East London women (or decedents of), which will be used as part of a walking tour app due to launch later this year. They will also be archived at the Bishopsgate Institute as an educational resource, and to inspire future generations of women campaigners. Get involved today!

We need your stories

Milly WitkopWere you part of the Women’s Lib movement in East London in the 60s to 80s? Was your mother or grandmother part of the radical East End community, along side the likes of Sylvia Pankhurst, Milly Witkop and Muriel Lester? Are you related to any of the women involved in the Poplar Rates Rebellion, such as Susan Lawrence, Nellie Creswell or Minnie Lansbury?

>> Get in touch today

We’re collecting stories from ordinary women who fought for change around the themes of housing, the Labour movement, racism, violence against women and girls and environment and the peace movement.  The stories will feature in our walking tour app – In Her Footsteps. The interviews will also be used as part of an exhibition due later this year, and archived for educational purposes at the Bishopsgate Institute.

Our project spans over 150 years, but while we want handed down stories from the past, we also want to to speak to amazing contemporary women campaigners. If you fit the bill, or you know someone who does, please do get in touch.

Sometimes stories are passed down through the generations organically, but sometimes they’re not and can be lost forever. Our research has found that women’s stories are at far greater risk of getting lost than mens’, and as such women’s history gets overlooked. It is especially important to share our memories of activism so that the next generation of young women can learn and be inspired. This way we are able to continue to fight for better rights for women, girls and the communities they live in.

So let’s make sure these amazing women’s lives are properly celebrated and preserved. Get in touch if you have a story, or know of someone with a story to share



Join our team of oral history volunteers

Oral history trainingAre you passionate about social change and celebrating women’s place in history? Would you like to join our team of oral history volunteers to help collect stories from East London women activists?

Following the success of our first training course earlier this month by Rib Davis, we are delighted to announce a second training day for all of those who missed out. You will have the chance to learn about the importance of oral history, what memory and false memory is, the ethics of oral history and practical elements such as archiving, transcribing and recording equipment.

Following the training you will join a team of around 20 other volunteers who will go out and record interviews with women around East London. These will be used as part of our walking tour app and exhibition, due for launch in summer 2016. We are also working in partnership with the Bishopsgate Institute to archive the interviews so that future generations can learn and be inspired by the women who went before them.

The next training is on 27th January. Get in touch if you would like to be part of it.


East London women lead way in class equality

Sylvia PankhurstOn Saturday 14th November I went to the Write Idea Festival, which has a focus on local heritage. I attended two talks: one by David Rosenberg and one by Sarah Glynn, both focusing on Eastend activism.

David Rosenberg talked about several women activists in his talk. This included Annie Besant, who was involved in a number of campaigns including the Matchstick Girls and Bloody Sunday. I found it particularly interesting that women led activism in East London, preceded well known male led campaigns, such as the Dockers’ Strike. They used many of the tactics the Matchstick Girls developed, such as rallying the wider community around their cause. Of course, this is a tactic still used today.

The East London Suffragettes, set up by Sylvia Pankhurst, were also featured in the talk. Rosenberg explained how the original Suffragette demands only asked for the vote on the same terms as men. This meant 40% of the population would still be without a vote. The East London Suffragettes however wanted universal suffrage, and were interested in wider equality. This has certainly been born out with our findings, which shows they went on the campaign around issues like childcare for women.

Sarah Glynn talked about the Bengali community in East London, specifically how the decline in socialism has lead to a rise in Islamism. She made a very interesting and compelling argument about how the Bengali community organising around faith, instead of class, has led to a division and weakening of working class activism. Sadly the talk spoke little about women, so how they fit into this argument is unclear.

A very interesting conference, and much to think about when drafting our final report