We had all gathered under the guise of a networking meeting organised by the social powerhouse that is Honest Mum, Vicki Psarias-Broadbent. To me, networking suggests shiny suits and soulless function rooms off the M25, business cards and forced joviality.
Vicki and Maggy Woodley of Red Ted Art‘s #CreativeWomen’s Network event was none of those things. It was light and colour. Conversation and laughter. Good hot coffee, chilled bubbles and delicious, healthy food. More importantly, it was a gathering of creative, innovative women, determined to put their art into the world.
We heard talks and exchanged ideas about how to maximize our presence across all social media channels and build solid platforms. We learnt, too, about the power of consistency and authenticity. Each expert spoke compellingly about overcoming adversity, finding her voice and growing in confidence. But the sentiment that ran through everything like a golden thread was that of empowerment and mutual support.
‘As women, we really need to tap into the idea of sisterhood,’ said Maggy Woodley.
In saying this, Maggy immediately gave a voice to the narrative. This was cemented further when Vicki hosted a Swap Shop-style skill set auction first introduced to her by Jessica Huie MBE, where attendees would state what they were looking for in terms of business support and what they could offer someone in return.
‘I can offer advice on how to build your social media brand in return for a photography session,’ voiced Joanne Szczyglowski, nurse and founder of The Ealing Mummy. Offers and counter offers were soon whizzing round the room, and by the time everyone spilled out into the bright spring sunshine, we all had a tangible sense of how we could use our skills to help others.
Of course, this is nothing new. For women born into the first half of the 20th century, sisterhood was inherent in their communities.
The era I write about, wartime Britain in the close-knit community of East London, put simply, would not have survived without sisterhood and female solidarity.
I have written four novels all set in the East End and, in doing so, I have begun to understand the richness and complexities of a matriarchal society and the plethora of roles women undertook before the formation of the Welfare State institutionalized them.
Women in crossover aprons and button-down boots were the beating heart of the East End. It is they who ruled the cobbles, kept the children fed, birthed the babies of the street when there was no midwife to call out, and conversely laid out the dead, whilst intervening in disputes and acting as money-lender and marriage counsellor. There was always a chief female on hand to support, protect and rally.
In my new wartime novel – The Allotment Girls, set at Bryant & May match factory in Bow – I weaved in one of history’s most explosive and enduring acts of female solidarity.
This summer marks the 130th anniversary of a largely forgotten strike that changed the course of working women’s lives forever. In July 1888, 1,400 women walked out of Bryant & May match factory and into the history books.
Most people are familiar with the conditions that sparked the walk-out. Women from soot-encrusted slums were forced to work for a pittance, falling prey to the infamous phossy jaw – the grisly disease caused by white phosphorus that caused the sufferer’s jaws and teeth to crumble and putrify.
Less is known about the women themselves.
‘The exploitation by greedy factory bosses is true, but the match girls’ role as meek, waif-like victims has been misunderstood,’ argues Louise Raw, whose book, Striking a Light, The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History, I read as research.
‘It is a commonly held belief that the women were led out on strike by a middle-class socialist by the name of Annie Besant, but these strikers needed no outside help and were far from downtrodden victims. Using strong bonds of working-class solidarity and female resourcefulness, these courageous women organised themselves and instigated the strike, not Annie Besant.’
‘Always hold your head up. Remember you’re as good as anyone,’ urged Mary Driscoll, a key figure in the strike.
With bold swagger, this tough tribe of women marched defiantly from Bow to the Houses of Parliament in their velvet, feathered hats, forcing their bosses into an embarrassing climb-down, in which they ceded to the strikers’ demands.
Some 130 years separates us from the striking matchwomen of Bow, and we will never begin to comprehend the poverty and privation that was their daily fight. Their battles will never be ours. But their methods can be.
This year marks the anniversary of so many other important events in the history of East London. It’s 100 years since the East London Federation of Suffragettes helped secure the vote for (some) women, and 50 years since the Ford sewing machinists from Dagenham went on strike over unequal pay. There are also so many other East End women, whose stories are missing from the history books and so their milestones go unmarked.
Equal pay, the right to vote, improved conditions in the home and workplace, all came about because women realised that by banding together, they have a stronger voice. Why don’t we follow suit? As the country celebrated #WomensHistoryMonth, whose voice did you choose to amplify?