I’m writing this on my way to work on the day of the women’s march, the day after open misogyny and blatant racism took one of the most powerful positions in the world. I’m feeling sad and guilty that I’m not there, but it is also giving me time to reflect on why I think standing up for our rights is so important. The fact that I have the freedom to do so is a privilege that I must not take for granted. But it is also something that too many people feel disconnected or afraid of. This time two years ago I would never have considered myself an activist, passionate – yes, feminist – yes, political – sure, but the term activist seemed above me, reserved for people who had earned that title after years of committed work and campaigning. But now I’m not so sure that’s true.
My journey to activism started when I read about the development of the newly proposed Jack the Ripper Museum in London’s East End – built instead of the original plans for a women’s history museum after a last minute change by the owner. Something inside me clicked into action. I felt anger at the deceit involved, of the silencing of women’s voices in favour of a well trodden celebration of a famous murderer. I felt I needed to do something. So I started a petition through the Campaigns By You section of the 38 Degrees website. I didn’t really expect anything else to happen to be honest. It was just an outlet for my rage. Only it did. And now there’s nearly 14000 signatures, there’s been a series of protests, a group of incredible women and I started our own exhibition, and it was crowd funded by the same people that signed the petition.
In October 2014 a new museum gained planning permission by promising ‘the only dedicated resource in the East End to women’s history’. With insulting irony, the museum was unveiled as a venue dedicated to the violent crimes of Jack the Ripper. Originally billed as a celebration of East London women and the suffragettes this museum now celebrates the life of the serial killer who viciously murdered women across London's East End, from 1888 and 1891. The original application, upon which Tower Hamlets Council gave its approval says: “The museum will recognise and celebrate the women of the East End who have shaped history, telling the story of how they have been instrumental in changing society. It will analyse the social, political and domestic experience from the Victorian period to the present day.” The document cited the closure of the local Whitechapel’s Women’s Library in 2013 to stress that the “Museum of Women’s History”, as it was billed, would be “the only dedicated resource in the East End to women’s history”. Instead, as is far too often the case, a celebration of the struggles of women has been forgotten.
The founder (a former Head of Diversity at Google) claims the museum "is not celebrating the crimes of Jack the Ripper but looking at why and how the women got in that situation in the first place”. This victim blaming attitude is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated. As a professional and artist working in the charity sector with young people to help prevent violence against women the development of a cultural organisation that glorifies the horrific violence the women were subjected to I find this argument truly reductionist. It smacks of misogyny, greed and dumbfounding deceit.
The petition initially called on Tower Hamlets council to revoke the planning permission for the new museum on Cable Street or force it to close down and re-open as the women's history museum we were promised.
Now unfortunately, we didn’t have much luck with petitioning the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, John Biggs; although he publicly backed the campaign and has been outspoken against the museum, legally his hands are tied. As the museum was granted permission to open as a museum, the change in content does not change the licensing. I found this completely ridiculous, particularly as I would argue that the content of the Jack the Ripper Museum is more akin to a tourist attraction, as opposed to a historically accurate educational institution, but unfortunately, this didn’t leave us very many options on the legal front. Unsatisfying to say the least.
While initially starting the petition with 38 Degrees gave me an avenue for my frustration, it turned out that lots of other people shared this feeling as well. Through the petition I’ve met women from the ‘East End Women’s Museum’, an online space dedicated to creating the museum we all deserve, who have over 300 volunteers and have been active in organising protests. There’s also the amazing women of the ‘East End Women’s Collective’ who I worked with to build our own exhibition which you can see at St Georges in the East Church, just moments from the Ripper Museum. So while the process might have started out of anger and frustration, it has led to the bringing together of a community and we have proven not only that we don't accept what is happening, but that we are going to do something about it.
The women’s marches around the world are the same thing. Fuelled by shock and anger, we are standing up and making our voices heard. We are protesting for the rights of all women and all the communities that society is oppressing. Perhaps most importantly we are showing each other that we are here. We are in this together.
Now marching or launching a petition isn’t the right thing for everyone. But we can all become an activist on our own terms. We can call out a sexist joke in a pub. We can teach the men in our lives about our feminism. We can check in with the woman who’s partner has just verbally abused her on the bus home. We can raise our children not to be confined by gender binaries and societal expectations. We can extend an act of kindness to a person who needs us. We can make sure that trans people know that they are here with us, that their experiences are just as important. We can practise self care and encourage others to do the same. We can speak to a woman from a different background to our own and ask her about her feminism. We can listen. We can learn.
Our small acts of activism are what is going to make facing the world that little bit easier in the short term. But eventually all of our small acts of activism are going to contribute to a movement that will continue to change the world. It’s a slow process and it has had its set backs. But we will not give up.
This journey started for me because I felt angry, but the more that this has continued, I feel more and more hopeful for the incredible power that people have when they come together. Lets do this.