On the 14th November in Bethnal Green myself, Kathryn Perera, the Chief Executive of Movement for Change, and Prof Mary Davies, leading biographer of Sylvia Pankhurst, will lead a discussion on what we can learn from some great campaigners, the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS).
ELFS started as a part of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the suffragette campaign for Votes for Women. By the end of the First World War ELFS was a service provider, running a toy factory to create jobs, the Mother’s Arms, a children’s centre supporting mothers with childcare and advice on child health, low cost restaurants and advice and advocacy support for east end women and their families. They started as a single issue campaign about political power and won trust, hearts and minds, maintaining momentum behind their cause whilst serving their neighbours and helping people to help themselves. They won the vote too. We can learn a lot from them.
Sylvia Pankhurst chose to settle in Bow because “The East End was the largest homogenous working class area accessible to the House of Commons by popular demonstrations”.
She recognised the democratic deficit in the mainly middle class Edwardian suffragette movement, and hoped that a mobilised east end would be an example to women across England.
ELFS was an impressive centralised machine. Branches of approximately the size of two current local government wards would submit weekly reports to be published in their newspaper, the Women’s’ Dreadnought, setting out how many papers they had sold, how much money had been raised, how many canvassing session had been run. Volunteers and the numbers of papers they had sold were listed every week. Around 20 public meetings were organised each week across what is now Tower Hamlets. The first edition of the Dreadnought includes instructions on canvassing:
“Much time is spent by Suffragettes in going from house to house to talk with the wives and mothers whose busy lives keep them within doors and make it difficult for them to hear the truth about Votes for Women”.
Mrs Walker, a suffragette and docker’s wife, compiled a list of issues raised with her in one canvassing session: “unemployment, poverty, housing, women as slaves, sweating”. Not enough has changed.
Volunteers weren’t just treated as cogs in a machine– they were trained in public speaking, and after a single session would be sent out to the nearest street corner to make speeches. Women gave up what little they had to spare for the cause. “Self Denial Week” involved women donating the money they would otherwise spend on sugar and jam to central funds, making flower posies and badges to be sold, and organising jumble sales.
Not everything was run from the top. When Zelie Emerson broke up a Poplar Borough Council meeting by throwing floour and stink bombs in protest at suffragettes being banned from council premises, she hadn’t asked anyone’s permission beforehand.
ELFS built for mass demonstrations in Victoria Park, marched on Downing Street, had mass prayer sessions outside Westminster Abbey, sent deputations to see the King … they understood how to put pressure on those in power, and how to win the trust of the people of east London.
Come and hear more about them, on the 14th November, 7pm in Bethnal Green. Book here: http://eastlondonsuffragettes.eventbrite.co.uk/