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‘The Awakening of Miss Appleby,’ a pro-suffrage play (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Between the 1st and the 10th of August 2014 was the East London Suffragettes Festival (http://eastlondonsuffragettes.tumblr.com), celebrating the centenary of the East London Federation of Suffragettes. Over the course of the 10-day period, a series of events were organised across East London, including a film night, talks, a book launch, a walking tour and, on Saturday the 9th, a full day of talks, events, and stalls at Toynbee Hall in Tower Hamlets. Organised solely by volunteers, I think it is safe to say that the festival was a huge success. I attended the book launch, the day at Toynbee Hall, and the walking tour, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself at all three.

 

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East London Suffragettes Walking Tour, led by David Rosenberg (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The East London Federation of Suffragettes were more radical and broad in their aims than more well-known groups campaigning for women’s suffrage. The group started out as a branch of the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union), run by Sylvia Pankhurst. As the mainstream suffrage movement focussed on the emancipation of middle and upper class women, Sylvia worked with working class women in the East End of London.The East End women were asked to leave the WSPU when Sylvia disobeyed her mother’s (Emmeline Pankhurst) orders and spoke at a rally in support of Irish Home Rule. It was at this point that the East London Federation of Suffragettes came about. Whilst other suffrage groups suspended their campaigns during the First World War, Sylvia and her fellow activists kept campaigning, becoming increasingly anti-war as time progressed. As well as campaigning, the group set up a cost-price restaurant, a nursery, and a cooperative toy factory to help support the local community. 

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Poetry in Toynbee Hall (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

All of the above information I learnt during the course of the festival, I had no previous knowledge of the East London Federation of Suffragettes. So for me at least, the festival’s goal of revealing the ‘Hidden Histories’ (one of the panel discussions organised by the festival) of the women of the East End was a resounding success. Another of the festival’s goals was to look forward as well as back, connecting the work of the suffragettes with campaigns that are still going on today, in particular the issue of tackling domestic abuse in East London. This is an admirable goal, and it proves that the study of historical protest has a purpose beyond entertainment or commemoration. Activists and campaigners can learn from their past counterparts, and also take heart and inspiration. Sylvia Pankhurst and the women of the East End were brave, strong, and fiercely independent, embodying qualities that many modern women, campaigners or not, aspire to. We should remember them because they deserve to be celebrated, but also because their actions continue to inspire and empower.

Thank you and congratulations to everyone involved in the organising and running of the festival, you did a wonderful job.

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East London Suffragettes Festival

6 thoughts on “East London Suffragettes Festival

  1. This is great. Very interesting about the ‘outcast’ suffragettes also being the working class ones! I get so angry at how badly they teach about the Suffragette movement in school – think they compared them to terrorists even at some point! Have you read Emmeline Pankhurst’s My Story yet?

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    • Not yet, but it is on my list! Well, one woman’s terrorist is another woman’s freedom fighter. I think by a lot of definitions the Suffragettes were terrorists, but that isn’t an inherently bad thing. It’s an incredibly emotionally loaded term, but it is also highly subjective, and whether you think someone is a terrorist or not varies a huge amount depending on your point of view. Nelson Mandela and Che Guevara were terrorists too, so the suffragettes wouldn’t be amongst totally awful company.

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  2. That’s true. I suppose we’re so scared of using the word ‘terrorist’ because it’s become synonymous with the word ‘devil’. One of my favourite things in Emmeline Pankhurst’s book is when she points out that the Suffragettes got really bad press for breaking windows of gov buildings during their protests, when in fact, breaking windows as a symbol of dissent with the government was always a staple of protests, and had been done by the male suffrage movement, like…30 years before? Ridiculous. It really makes me think, though, that we used to break windows of gov buildings (because government rules us, right?), and now, we get people breaking shop windows – is this people expressing their dissent with the corporations that effectively rule our lives now? CONSPIRACY!!! 😛

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