Women and protest

Sylvia Pankhurst recovering from hunger strike in 1913Sylvia Pankhurst recovering from hunger strike in 1913

Ahead of a Women's History Month exhibition at Wanstead Library, Judith Garfield MBE of Eastside Community Heritage looks at the history of women's rights campaigns, including the work of former Woodford Green resident Sylvia Pankhurst.

The world has changed and continues to do so, and women of the East End of London have played their part. From the matchwomen of Bow to the Ford factory machinists of Dagenham, the women of east London have fought for their rights, their beliefs, their communities ... and we're not finished yet!

In 1914, Sylvia Pankhurst split from the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), formed by her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel, and started up her own branch of suffragettes in the East End. This branch was called the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) and was established in Old Ford Road, Bow. The reason for the split was that Sylvia's mother and sister did not think a movement led by working-class women would have the necessary clout to win the vote. They felt that middle- and upper-class women had more power. Sylvia did not agree.

As well as campaigning for the women's vote, the ELFS aimed to address issues relevant to working-class women. They set up a day nursery and cheap restaurant (part of their campaign against rising food prices) on Old Ford Road, a toy factory in Norman Grove that employed men and women at an equal, living wage and a relief programme providing children with milk. They employed tactics such as lobbying and mass mobilisation, instead of the single heroic acts favoured by the WSPU – a spell in prison was not something these women could afford, they had families relying on their wage.

Whilst the WSPU suspended their Votes for Women campaign during the First World War, the ELFS continued to demonstrate in favour of women gaining the vote, as well as other women's rights issues, such as equal pay. The ELFS were not a single issue campaign group; they were a revolution that aimed to change the role of women in society.

In February 1918, the Representation of the People Act was passed, which gave all men the vote at 21 and women (who owned property) the vote at 30. Although this added 8.5 million women to the electoral register, it still represented less than half of adult women in the UK. A significant if not partial victory, at the same time in 1918, the Parliamentary Qualification of Women Act was passed, enabling women to stand as Members of Parliament. The first woman MP was elected in 1918. But the story continues. No sooner had the act passed than many former suffragettes and suffragists got to work immediately on the campaign to extend the vote to women under 30 and those over 30 who had been excluded, many of whom were domestic servants. They found victory at last in 1928 when the Equal Franchise Act finally awarded women the vote on equal terms to men, at age 21.

The East End of London has been a hub of activism throughout history. It is traditionally a working-class area that has provided hundreds of thousands of people with employment through its industries, including the docks, factories and traditional trades such as textiles and market trading. This plethora of jobs has attracted many communities to the area, making it a diverse place to live.

In the past, workers in the East End were not well paid, but women and the black, Asian and Chinese communities tended to have suffered the most with low pay and poor working conditions. The matchgirls' strike at the Bryant and May factory is one of the most famous strikes in the East End led by and formed of women. Although there have been improvements since then, there is still more to do and women continue to campaign for their working rights.

And so we come to the present, where last year's sex scandals in politics and the media have all gone to show how the struggle for equality remains as important as ever, and also how the struggle now extends to private spaces as well. What would Sylvia Pankhurst make of modern-day discrimination and inequality? As her granddaughter, Helen Pankhurst, said recently at the launch of the East End Women's Museum: "We must hear all women's voices loud and clear and acknowledge their rights."

Even in today's society, there are still issues of inequality, especially in the workplace.

A women's rights exhibition will be on display at Wanstead Library from 14 to 31 March (free). Call 020 8553 3116

Judith will also be leading a discussion on women's rights at an East London Humanists event at Wanstead Library on 26 March from 7.30pm (visitors welcome; free). Visit wavidi.co/elh


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