Residents of East London had a shock last week when a new museum in their neighborhood promising to celebrate women’s history instead opened as an homage to infamous killer of women, “Jack The Ripper.” The about-face has drawn a chorus of critics accusing the museum administrators of sexism.
As of this writing, the museum seems to be updating its website. Previously, its About page (screen grab here) highlighted “the victims’ names, ages and murder locations,” as well as the opportunity for visitors to view original autopsy photos (if they’re over age 16, please). Today, it touts that the museum offers “overlooked history, and untold stories of women in the East End of London.”
Local residents and the online community have responded to the museum’s opening with frustration and outrage, citing a need to shed light on the women from fabled East London not just as victims of heinous crimes, but as activists and leaders.
Historian Sara Huws and writer Sarah Jackson want to satisfy that need. “The new [Jack The Ripper] museum on Cable Street represents a huge missed opportunity,” said Huws in an email to Women in the World. She and Jackson have set up a website calling for volunteers to help open the East End Women’s Museum. Indeed, there’s a rich history on which to build such a museum. Below are a few of the women who left their mark on London’s East End:
1. The “Match Girls” of 1880
In 1888, women and girls working at the Bryant & May match factory in East London made history when they went on strike to protest deplorable working conditions. The women faced severe health complications from the toxic white phosphorus used to make matches. They also worked long hours for next to nothing, and faced excessive fines for being late or dropping matches. The dismissal of one worker sparked the strike, which lasted several days. As a result of the women’s activism, Bryant & May eliminated white phosphorus from its match production and increased the women’s pay. The strike gave rise to the modern trade union movement.
2. Sylvia Paankhurst and the East London Suffragettes
In 1913, Sylvia Pankhurst set up the East London Federation of Suffragettes, which later became the Women’s Suffrage Federation. The Sufragettes led a democratic movement, advocating for the rights of working class women. Not only did they campaign for the right to vote, the Suffragettes also advocated for equal pay, better housing, child benefits, and old age pensions. And, as the effects of the First World War hit the East End, the Sufragettes also took action to address the unemployment and starvation facing residents.
3. Ford Women
In 1968, sewing machinists at the Ford plant in Dagenham in East London went on strike when they found out they were paid less than male employees for doing the same work. The strike, led by Rose Boland, Eileen Pullen, Vera Sime, Gwen Davis, and Sheila Douglass eventually halted car production at the plant. It ended after three weeks when leadership conceded to pay the women only eight percent less than their male colleagues, and raised the classification of their jobs from unskilled to skilled. The strike went on to inspire equal pay demonstrations and the Equal Pay Act of 1970, which made it illegal to pay a woman less than a man for equivalent work in the U.K.
4. Damaris Page
In the 17th century, Damaris Page was a notorious sex worker, brothel keeper, and entrepreneur. Born into poverty, she began working as a prostitute as a teenager and went on to run and operate brothels in East London. With her earnings, she invested in property speculation and construction. She led a high-profile life in London, and was characterized as a “Crafty Brawd” in pamphlets at the time. There’s speculation that Page inspired Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders.
5. Sarah Wesker and the Battle of Cable Street
In the 1920s, Sarah Wesker was an active union organizer, leading strikes at several major textiles factories. Her efforts mobilized women working at the factories to demand higher pay and better working conditions. Fluent in both English and Yiddish, she also became an important figure in the fight against fascism in London during the Battle of Cable Street. On October 4, 1936, a landmark “battle” took place when a fascist group attempted to storm a Jewish neighborhood. Violence broke out amongst the two groups, police, and local residents, who fought with rocks and improvised weapons. Wesker, along with other women joined the men on the street, and fought alongside them.
6. Elizabeth Burdett-Coutts
Burdett-Coutts was perhaps one of the wealthiest women in Victorian England. But it was what she did with her wealth, inherited from her father Thomas Coutts, founder of London Bank, that makes her story remarkable. Burnett-Coutts not only helped to manage the bank, but she also donated the majority of her fortune to philanthropic causes. She set up schools for unskilled workers and provided housing for the poor of East London. She also set up Urania Cottage with Charles Dickens, which helped women in need of shelter and education. Her financial contributions to London’s hospitals helped to fund early cancer research.
7. Mala Sen and the Bengali Housing Action Group
In the 1970s, the fast-growing Bengali community in East London faced racism and prejudice, particularly when it came to housing access. Many were living in single-room, slum-like conditions. Race equality activist Mala Sen joined others to form the Bengali Housing Action Group, which challenged the city to improve housing. A firm believer in her activist efforts, she said, “When you are a political activist, you empower other people to take their chance to empower themselves.”