Saturday, August 02, 2014

Women's Activism Film Night and East London Suffragette Festival

Four Corners; photo by Val Phoenix
No matter how long I have lived in East London, there are always things to learn about its rich and complex history, and last night's Women’s Activism Film Night at Four Corners gave me some new insights into the history of feminist activism in the area. Raised in the USA, I am familiar with Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth and so forth, but haven't really familiarised myself with the Pankhursts and their agitations in the UK, first for the vote and then for multiple issues. Chief in this regard was Sylvia Pankhurst, who established the East London Federation of Suffragettes in Bow in 1914, working on a multi-pronged strategy to provide food and opportunities for East End women while the war raged abroad.

The film night was the kickoff of a ten-day celebration of her legacy and that of others in the East End, which culminates with a day-long event at Toynbee Hall on the 9th. It should be fascinating.

Last night's film programme, organised by the dynamic duo Barrelstout, started with footage of the suffragettes marching through London, but then moved on to other areas and time periods, seeking to make connections to labour, anti-racism, and other struggles that continue to the present day. It definitely whetted my appetite to see the excerpted films in full, which included Rise Up Women! and Sylvia Pankhurst: Everything Is Possible. Even the titles are inspirational! There were plenty of history I knew nothing about, such as the 1970s Grunwick strike, led by Asian women, and interviews with women who supported the miners strike and found they could do more than they thought. This is a familiar refrain with women's activism.
Suffragette rap sheet; photo by Val Phoenix

An exhibition of posters from several eras of women's activism in London is on display for the next week at Four Corners. I found the photos of the suffragettes and descriptions of their activities most intriguing. Such fierce women!

One interesting theme I picked up on in talking to other attendees was the vast energy and agency these women seemed to tap into. Could we ever see delegations from local estates pouring into a demo at Wapping? Labour organisers bussed down in their thousands to support a local strike? Women firebombing churches in order to obtain equal rights?

East London Suffragette Festival runs 1-10 August in London.

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