130 years ago, a strike at the Bryant & May match making factory that was led by the women in the factory marked the first decisive chapter of this history – and striking an important first step to address gender inequality. Nearly 30 years later, Sylvia Pankhurst and the East London Federation of Suffragettes used Tower Hamlets as a base: calling for universal suffrage and campaigning for the rights of workers and improved conditions for the poor. Its newspaper, the Woman’s Dreadnought, was first published and circulated in the streets around Bow and Bethnal Green on 8 March 1914 – a date that is now celebrated as International Women’s Day.
Since then, numerous women have played equally vital roles in shaping the future of their community. These include Mary James and Hannah Billig (both awarded honours for their work supporting those in need) in the 1930s and 1940s, Mala Sen, who set up the Bengali Housing Action Group helping to establish Brick Lane as a safe living area for the Bangladeshi community in the 1960s and 1970s, the first female Mayor of the borough Eva Armsby (elected in 1979) – and Julie Begum and Women Unite Against Racism in the early 1990s, who founded a female counter-racist action group.
With such a rich history of women in the borough, Tower Hamlets has also highlighted its many resources and support materials for its current female residents with a day-long event at Rich Mix. Here, a one-stop information zone focussed on the range of activities offered specifically to support and empower women in relation to employment rights and apprenticeships, to advice and help on health, childcare, money and language courses.
The story of influential women in Tower Hamlets was also the focus at the borough’s Staff Conference held today – with the inspirational Lorraine Flanagan, Headteacher of Thomas Buxton Primary School in Bethnal Green speaking on the history of women in the borough, and drawing a parallel with own journey from her early career in Scotland working on Oil rigs to leading a successful school in the Borough.
Mayor of Tower Hamlets John Biggs addressed the staff conference. He said:
“This year’s theme ‘Press for Progress’ illustrates how important it is that we back up our anger and words with action. Not just for gender equality but for a more equal society in all ways. That goal is something I hold dear, and I know people across Tower Hamlets do too. That’s why I want our council to hold regular Gender Pay Audits to ensure that, as an employer, we are leading the way in tackling conscious and unconscious bias and ensure we are driving forward gender equality across both our council and community’’
Tower Hamlets held its staff conference, a chance to recognise the values of the council in our employees. The session was heavily favoured by International Women’s Day and a panel of leading women from inside and outside the council including a young banking executive from Clifford Chance and Alice Williams, Founder and Project Manager of Luminary Bakery - a social enterprise that helps women find work and opportunity and Leonie Campbell King, Associate at Clifford Chance Law debated the changes and challenges for women today.
The council has never had so many women at the most senior levels of management in the council. There are currently five members of the Corporate Leadership Team (out of 6) and half the council's cabinet of ten members are women. While it was acknowledged that there is still a way to go for women to enjoy proper parity and equality in the workplace the council has a good base from which to work
As the boroughs ‘Big Clean Up 3’ campaign comes to a close also, today was the perfect day for a select group of volunteers to hit the streets around Roman Road – the area in which Pankhurst and the Suffragettes first sold the Woman’s Dreadnought – and clear them of litter.
Celebrations of the amazing history of the borough continue throughout March. The Borough has partnered with Alternative Arts – with support from the heritage lottery fund – to present a diverse range of events, talks and exhibitions across the borough celebrating the beginnings of universal suffrage, and the vital role that women play in our community today in one of the epicentres of the initial struggle. Later in the year, Tower Hamlet’s Local History Library and Archive will also provide interactive exhibitions, photography displays and market stalls that bring to life the pioneering work of the ELFS. This includes a recreation of ‘Women’s Hall’ – the HQ of the ELFS – where you can see original materials from a pivotal point in our history which opens from 29 May to 20 October.
With much still to do in society at large, Tower Hamlets looks forward to playing as pivotal a role in the future as it has in the past.
Posted on Thursday 8th March 2018