East London Federation of Suffragettes

East London Federation of Suffragettes

Didn’t know that it’s 100 years since the start of the First World War? Unlikely. You can’t move for TV and radio programmes dedicated to it, local talks, ceremonies, commemorations, exhibitions… No, this centenary is something that we are all very much aware of. But what of the anti-war movement?

East London Federation of Suffragettes

In 1914, the same year as war broke out, Sylvia Pankhurst founded the breakaway East London Federation of Suffragettes, yet this anniversary merits hardly a whisper. Sylvia, like her mother, Emmeline, and sister, Christabel, was passionate about achieving votes for women, but she was also strongly in favour of a broader justice for women. Moved especially by the suffering of East London women, she set up an office in Bow, in London’s impoverished (then, as now) borough of Tower Hamlets, and made concerted efforts to improve the lives of working-class women. Many of the schemes that were organised would have been impressive by today’s standards: nurseries for working mothers, not-for-profit canteens for the poor, collective workshops, and a campaign for equal pay for women. The Federation was also vehemently anti-war.

So why is there so little information about this revolutionary woman and her cohorts?

In a Suffragette Special in 2013, Jenni Murray, Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour’ presenter, talked about a Fourth wave of Feminism. She spoke of Criado-Perez’s attempts to see women get better representation in the British media and to be depicted on banknotes, she referred to the ‘Everyday Sexism Project’ and the ‘No More Page 3’ campaign. But how depressing to hear Jenni Murray describe the suffragettes as ‘really rather formidable’ and somewhat ‘militant’. Today, on Twitter, the hashtag #Feministsareugly is trending. Pretty women are posting selfies in order to contradict that stereotype. Is that really as far as we’ve come? Even pretty women don’t mind calling themselves feminists?

Poverty in Tower Hamlets… still

But back to those ‘militant’ suffragettes. You’d think that in Tower Hamlets, an area still blighted by poverty, domestic violence, overcrowding and with 42% of children in poverty, that the centenary of the founding of the East London Federation of Suffragettes might be something to be celebrated, or even mentioned. Yet there is hardly anything on the council website, or in the council-funded newspaper ‘East End Life’. In fact, were it not for the valiant efforts of the East London Suffragette Movement who, this week, have organised a festival with some excellent events to celebrate these brave women, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there was no anti-war movement, let alone one that was spearheaded by women.

Work to do

Sylvia’s work is as relevant today as it was 100 years ago – women still don’t have equal pay, representation, equality in marriage or childcare, and much more depressingly, there are instances where women have reputedly been persuaded to hand over those hard-won votes to their husbands, almost 100 years after the suffragettes finally gained them. And war? Our governments still engage in pointless, expensive wars while cutting funding for education, employment and childcare.

So where’s the coverage of these valiant women in the media? Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour’ (speaking of anachronisms, though where else would you be able to find out about the extraordinary embroidery on the suffragette banners?) gave the Federation’s anniversary about as much air-time as it did today’s ‘100 years of the Brownies’.

For those interested in finding out more,  check out the wonderful work of Researcher Vicky Stewart & Designer Adam Tuck, who have collaborated to create a map of some key events in the struggle for Women’s Suffrage. See the map here.  It shows a host of events that took place around the East End, centred around W F Arber & Co Ltd where Gary Arber’s grandmother Emily Arber was responsible for printing handbills for Sylvia Pankhurst upon the Golding Press in the basement at 459 Roman Rd.



Launch of the East London Suffragettes by Sarah Jackson and Rosemary Taylor
Book Launch

Brick Lane Bookshop


Toynbee Hall Event
Free day of talks, workshops and performance about history of history, equality, and east London.

Toynbee Hall


East London Suffragettes

Twitter @ELSuffragettes

Everyday Sexism Project