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Pepper to throw at fascists: the forgotten women of Cable Street

As we commemorate the Battle of Cable Street, it's important to recognise the role women played – and their legacy today.

It's the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, an event often characterized by the dramatic photograph of a young woman demonstrator being dragged along an east London street by three policemen. Yet the role of women in this historic protest is often ignored in stories of the day, and is still in danger of being forgotten.

For British Jews, the fight on 4 October 1936, to stop the British Union of Fascists marching through the streets of Stepney, was a watershed. It was not only a collective fightback against months of intimidation and violence in the neighbourhood where Jews had lived for decades. It was also a brazen act of defiance against the established West End Jewish leadership, who had banned attendance at public demonstrations, by a younger, more militant generation of Jews. But even though women played an active part in the demonstration itself and an essential part in building the local solidarity that made it victorious, they are often left out of the story.

By 1936, young working-class women and girls from immigrant families had long been regarded by Jewish philanthropists as a particular danger to the respectability of the communal public image. In the East End, middle-class Jewish youth workers were acutely aware of the lingering aura of Victorian anti-Semitism, which linked immigrant Jews with prostitution. It was clearly with this in mind that, in 1936, they issued Jewish teenage girls in Stepney with the stern warning not only “to avoid taking part in, or being in any way associated with rowdy street meetings” but also to keep fit, “abstain from loitering the streets at night”, “reject extremes of fashion” and “refrain from excessive painting of the face and dyeing of the hair”.

The idea that fascism would go away if only Jews kept a lower profile was, however, hopelessly out of touch with events unfolding in the East End. Wiping off their lipstick did not protect women from street attacks by fascists – nor were women exempt from police brutality at the Battle of Cable Street. In fact, Jewish women were energetically involved in anti-fascist activism leading up to the Battle, from heckling and selling campaign literature at Blackshirt speaker meetings, to whitewashing walls with anti-fascist slogans and street fighting. At Cable Street, women were not only behind the barricades but also above them. When police tried to clear the road, women standing at the windows of the tenements threw missiles on them, and when they fled into nearby sheds, women came down from the buildings and chased them out.

Angela Davis' mother Millie was only 17 when she disobeyed her religious father and legged it with her two older sisters down to Aldgate where the crowd was gathering to protest. “The girls all went out with pepper pots in their coat pockets to throw pepper into the faces of the fascists,” Angela says, “they were all prepared to literally do battle with them. They wanted to stand shoulder to shoulder with the dockers – working people the same as they all were, and socialists.”

The display at Cable Street of unity across religious, sectarian and ideological differences has been the subject of celebration and nostalgia ever since. But it would not have come about without a much longer local history of collaboration among Jewish and gentile political activists, often involving female leadership. In 1912, for example, during a long-running dock strike, support for the dockers’ families was co-ordinated by two young Jewish anarchist women, Nelly Ploshansky and Millie Sabelinsky.

They persuaded local Jewish retailers to donate clothes and shoes, and working-class Jewish families took in the children of their neighbours. Describing the five who came to stay with her family, Nelly said: "I must have been about 15 at the time, and we had to take care of the children of the dockers because there was nothing for them to eat. And so we organised and took these children and spread them out among all the comrades that we knew, and they stayed with them until the strike was over, and then they went home. That was one way of helping.”

Throughout the 1930s, too, women activists participated in contesting illegal or exploitative practices by East End slumlords. The Stepney Tenants’ Defence League, spearheaded by the Communist Party, hoped to address local anxieties about housing that the BUF was manipulating to garner support. They formed tenants’ committees – frequently all-women, with Jewish and non-Jewish women working together – and women organised demonstrations, rent strikes, pickets, fundraising parties and parades. They met with resounding success, both as housing campaigners and as community-builders.

In 2016, as so many times previously, marking the anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street feels timely. Once again the nation is fractured, vulnerable and intolerant, with uncertainties about employment and housing expressed in overt hostility to migrants. But reflecting on that extraordinary moment of solidarity in October 1936 need not just be an exercise in nostalgia. East London today, a vortex of gentrification, austerity and social exclusion, is also experiencing a renaissance of grassroots protest that carries forward the legacy of Cable Street. The creative resourcefulness of feminist groups like Focus E15 and Sisters Uncut is markedly reminiscent of anarchist and socialist activists in the early twentieth century, who understood locality as the place where social divisions could be challenged and overcome.

Nadia Valman is Reader in English Literature at Queen Mary, University of London where she teaches nineteenth and twentieth-century literature, researches the history and culture of the East End of London and leads walking tours.

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How the Lib Dems learned to love all-women shortlists

Yes, the sitting Lib Dem MPs are mostly white, middle-aged middle class men. But the party's not taking any chances. 

I can’t tell you who’ll be the Lib Dem candidate in Southport on 8 June, but I do know one thing about them. As they’re replacing a sitting Lib Dem (John Pugh is retiring) - they’ll be female.

The same is true in many of our top 20 target seats, including places like Lewes (Kelly-Marie Blundell), Yeovil (Daisy Benson), Thornbury and Yate (Clare Young), and Sutton and Cheam (Amna Ahmad). There was air punching in Lib Dem offices all over the country on Tuesday when it was announced Jo Swinson was standing again in East Dunbartonshire.

And while every current Lib Dem constituency MP will get showered with love and attention in the campaign, one will get rather more attention than most - it’s no coincidence that Tim Farron’s first stop of the campaign was in Richmond Park, standing side by side with Sarah Olney.

How so?

Because the party membership took a long look at itself after the 2015 election - and a rather longer look at the eight white, middle-aged middle class men (sorry chaps) who now formed the Parliamentary party and said - "we’ve really got to sort this out".

And so after decades of prevarication, we put a policy in place to deliberately increase the diversity of candidates.

Quietly, over the last two years, the Liberal Democrats have been putting candidates into place in key target constituencies . There were more than 300 in total before this week’s general election call, and many of them have been there for a year or more. And they’ve been selected under new procedures adopted at Lib Dem Spring Conference in 2016, designed to deliberately promote the diversity of candidates in winnable seats

This includes mandating all-women shortlists when selecting candidates who are replacing sitting MPs, similar rules in our strongest electoral regions. In our top 10 per cent of constituencies, there is a requirement that at least two candidates are shortlisted from underrepresented groups on every list. We became the first party to reserve spaces on the shortlists of winnable seats for underrepresented candidates including women, BAME, LGBT+ and disabled candidates

It’s not going to be perfect - the hugely welcome return of Lib Dem grandees like Vince Cable, Ed Davey and Julian Huppert to their old stomping grounds will strengthen the party but not our gender imbalance. But excluding those former MPs coming back to the fray, every top 20 target constituency bar one has to date selected a female candidate.

Equality (together with liberty and community) is one of the three key values framed in the preamble to the Lib Dem constitution. It’s a relief that after this election, the Liberal Democratic party in the Commons will reflect that aspiration rather better than it has done in the past.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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