A new museum that originally promised to pay tribute to the Suffragette movement and the women of east London has opened. But it turns out it's no longer going to be a museum that pays tribute to women. It is, in fact, opening as a Jack the Ripper museum; memorialising the work of a man who is famous for mutilating and killing women.
The Elizabeth Fry Centre on Hackney Road stands empty and windowless. The founder of the East London Federation of Suffragettes, Sylvia Pankhurst, is memorialised by a sexual health centre on the third floor of Mile End Hospital. Josephine Butler, the woman who campaigned against the "surgical rape" of prostitutes under the Contagious Diseases Act, had her house knocked down to make way for a car park. There is no statue to the 1,400 matchstick girls who went on strike in 1888 and revolutionised the trade union movement. Countless female campaigners and politicians, including Annie Besant, Millicent Fawcett, Nellie Cressall, Annie Kenney and Julia Scurr, who worked or visited the East End of London, are largely ignored, unknown or forgotten, even on their own doorstep.
And yet Jack the Ripper, an anonymous murderer, is getting his own museum on Cable Street. That's right: Cable Street. An area where Jack the Ripper was never known to have lived or committed any crimes, but that was the site of some of modern social history's most important pitched moments; the anti-fascist Battle of Cable Street in 1936, the London Dock Strike of 1889 and the birth of the Pankhursts' Suffragette movement.
Of course, that the women who shaped history are tucked up in a blanket of ignorance and silence while the men who built on their successes are memorialised, celebrated and poured into bronze statues is nothing new. But there is a particularly unpleasant kick, a salty, sulphurous tang, about the fact that a proposed "Museum of Women's History" has, in fact, turned out to be a gory theme park to an unprosecuted rapist. Especially when, across the rest of London, there is so little public recognition of women's history.
When I first moved to London, I worked as a receptionist in The Women's Library in Whitechapel. It was here that I once stumbled upon a jug full of Victorian sex toys, an artefact taken from a brothel around the corner. It was here that I stood in a cold, starkly-lit basement and held Emily Wilding Davison's return train ticket from Epsom, proving that she'd never intended to kill herself when she ran under the King's horse at the Derby. It was here that I handled bathing costumes knitted by loving husbands for their politician wives, listened to the last known recordings of women who won me the vote, stood before the original suffragette banners carried to the Houses of Parliament and, once, had to clean up a lift full of piss after a woman who smelt of ham sandwiches lost control of her bladder between floors.
During those hours spent on reception I lost count of the number of people who wandered in to ask about Jack the Ripper. One Spanish tourist, carrying his small son, memorably asked in front of a meeting of feminist historians where he could find the "places of Jack the Rapist". Around the corner was the jauntily-named Jack the Clipper (because, of course, who doesn't want to have their neck shaved under a sex crimes pun) and just over the river, drama school graduates strode around outside the London Bridge Tesco dressed as Jack the Ripper in nylon capes, handing out flyers for The London Dungeon. The Women's Library is now closed – the collection absorbed by the London School of Economics. We may have had four floors full of women's history, exhibitions, events and books but it was no match for the glamour, the intrigue and the uncomfortable titillation of an unpunished Victorian murderer and sexual offender.
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"Down in Stepney there's a statue to Charles Booth who started the Salvation Army; there are plaques to sailor and murderer of Asian natives Captain Cook; there are lots of plaques to men but there aren't really any statues to women," says community campaigner and East End resident Jemima Broadbridge. "Tourists coming to this museum aren't necessarily going to know the real history of Cable Street," she adds. "They're going to walk down here after the Tower of London, probably led by a Jack the Ripper tour guide, so they'll start to think this is Jack the Ripper territory and it's not; his nearest murder was on Berner Street." This real Cable Street history not only includes the anti-fascist protests in the 1930s but also the Ratcliffe Highway Murders – a series of attacks so horrific that once the murderer was apprehended and killed the police put a stake through his heart and buried it at a crossroads. Cable Street was visited by Charles Dickens, who based the character of Fagin on a real pickpocket who operated on Petticoat Lane, near Spitalfields Market. East London is, according to Broadbridge, the birthplace of the striptease. "The striptease didn't come from Paris – it came from the East End of London. It was something that working-class women used to do to mock the upper classes for wearing so many layers of clothing."
Broadbridge's argument isn't necessarily against there being a museum to Jack the Ripper, simply that the man behind it, Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe, should have admitted that was what he was planning: "He's going to make a lot of money but he just needed to be straight about what he was doing," says Broadbridge, "so we could have had this debate before it opened."
When it comes to East End history, it can all-too often seem that unless women were sex workers or murdered, we're simply not interested. Although there is a statue to Emmeline Pankhurst hidden in the shadows of the Houses of Parliament, away from the bustle and noise of Parliament Square, there is no similar statue to her radical daughter Sylvia, who broke with the WSPU in 1914 to set up the East London Federation of Suffragettes, took over the Gunmaker's Arms pub in Bow, changed the name to the Mother's Arms, used it as a clinic and creche for mothers and babies so working women could go out and earn money, set up a free toy exchange and opened a soup kitchen to feed her struggling neighbours. There is no London statue to Annie Kenney, the former mill-worker and one of the only working-class women to lead the WSPU, who was sent to prison and went on hunger strike to protest against the disenfranchisement of women. There is no statue to the thousands of girls as young as 12, employed by Bryant and May, who went on strike to protest that the red phospherous they worked with was making the bones in their jaw glow green, all their hair fall out and blinding them with headaches. There isn't a statue to the campaigning journalist Annie Besant who brought the story of the Matchstick Girls to public attention, calling their working conditions "white slavery". There isn't a blue plaque to the suffragette and former mayor of Poplar, Nellie Cressall.
Across town, at the Foundling Museum, a new exhibition called The Fallen Woman is due to open in September. Although, once again, this exhibition marks women out as the victims of men, rather than the agents of change, it at least speaks to a wider social experience than the Jack the Ripper Museum probably will. "We've wanted to do this exhibition for a while," says curator Stephanie Chapman. "We realised that here at the Foundling Museum we've got physical evidence of all the male governors; portrait after portrait on the walls. But the women are much harder to bring to life. So part of the exhibition is a sound installation that will bring their voices to the fore – visitors can actually hear the sort of testimonies that these women would have given. Some of them are quite shocking. They use the word 'seduction' but today we understand that to mean rape." Why, I ask, do we seem so fascinated by the victims of male sexual violence but so reluctant to memorialise them as individuals? "It's difficult because we don't know what happened to lots of these women afterwards," explains Chapman. "Do you want to memorialise someone who is essentially a victim of their circumstances? It's a horrific thing that these women went through but do we want to define them entirely by that one experience?"
The Fallen Woman exhibition not only speaks to Victorian ideas of the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor but draws parallels to the current government's attitude to welfare. Chancellor George Osborne recently announced that tax credits and universal credit will no longer be awarded to families with more than two children unless "women... have a third child as a result of rape, or other exceptional circumstances". How exactly are we going to enforce that? How, indeed, can anyone judge who has and has not been the victim of a sexual offence? Will women be, once again, standing in front of panels of male judges pleading their fallen status like their Foundling forebears? Will we be subjecting women to the sorts of physical examinations campaigned against by Josephine Butler back in the 1860s? As welfare payments are taken away from young families deemed "undeserving" by the state, will food banks and charitable donations become as vital as the free toy exchanges and soup kitchens set up by Sylvia Pankhurst in 1915?
As the government drag us back to the Victorian state of poverty, female oppression, social injustice and moral evangelism, perhaps we should forget the sideshow of Jack the Ripper and focus instead on the East End women who turned the tides of social history. We should resist the tourist titillation and instead remember the words of campaigner Julia Scurr, born in Limehouse in 1873, that "Any rise in the price of rents, foods and other household commodities affects us women vitally."
We should forget about a museum to a secret murderer and remember what's important.
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