Five local women who made a difference

Esther Freeman seeks to redress the balance on the influential females forgotten by history

1915 Women's Peace Conference

Female delegates to the 1915 Women’s Peace Conference in The Hague, April 1915

Those who paid attention in school will know that William Wilberforce ended slavery and Emmeline Pankhurst won women the vote. Except history is selective, and our retelling is biased.

William Wilberforce would have been nothing without the 30,000 women who organised a successful boycott of sugar grown on slave-run plantations; and Emmeline Pankhurst only wanted the vote on the same terms as men, which excluded around 40 percent of mostly working-class women.

In Her Footsteps is a local heritage project run by Share UK, and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. It seeks to readdresses this historical imbalance, celebrating women, from all walks of life; women we owe so much to, yet have probably never heard of.

Sybil Smith

Angry at her mother’s exclusion of working class women from the suffrage movement, Sylvia Pankhurst formed the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS). Although they continued to agitate for the vote, they also changed the lives of working women in more subtle ways. In 1914, Sybil Smith opened the first ELFS creche. It was so successful that a second, larger nursery was opened at a disused pub called the Gunmakers’ Arms. Renamed the Mothers’ Arms, it also housed a baby clinic and free milk depot.

Muriel Lester

Born in Leytonstone, Muriel Lester was dubbed the ‘mother of peace’. During both world wars she organised a number of activities, including prayers to enemy nations, services to pacifist speakers, cheap meals for munitions workers and protection to local Germans and Austrians. In 1941 she was arrested on the orders of Churchill, who did not like this ‘meddling woman’. She was detained in Holloway Prison for the remainder of the war. After 1945 Muriel continued her peace campaigning in response to other conflicts. She was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Sarah Wesker

Fifty years before women workers at Dagenham went on strike, Sarah Wesker was agitating for better pay for women. She founded the United Clothing Workers Trade Union, leading strikes in several textile factories in East London, mobilising hundreds of women workers. Sarah campaigned at a time when women were not welcome in the workforce, let alone trade unions. At best her male colleagues saw women’s pay as peripheral to the mass unemployment of the time; at worst, they despised female workers for creating competition for jobs.

Mala Sen

Born in India, Mala came to London in the 1960s. She was stunned by prejudice against migrants, particularly from the local authorities. They would often refuse to house migrants, arguing they’d made themselves intentionally homeless. Those that did get housing often found themselves on white-dominated estates and endured daily threats of racism. Mala co-founded the Bengali Action Group, sourcing empty council flats for homeless Bangladeshis. They drew up a map for the former Greater London Council, defining a safe living area for the community. This established Brick Lane as the Bangladeshi heartland of Britain.

Julie Begum

Women Unite Against Racism formed in the 1990s, during a time of increasing racist attacks following the election of the first British National Party (BNP) councillor. Although the group had no formal leaders, Julie Begum was a key figure. Julie and the others went door-to-door in Tower Hamlets, registering Asian women to vote. But even those registered were often too scared to go to polling booths, fearing attacks from the BNP supporters, so escorts were organised for women to vote in safety. The project was so successful that in the following election the BNP lost its seat.

Despite their importance, these five women are almost all missing from Wikipedia. This month a ‘Women on Wikipedia-a-thon’ took place at The Mill in Coppermill Lane, Walthamstow, to help give these women their rightful place in history.


For further information on In Her Footsteps:

Visit www.herfootsteps.org.uk