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4 October 2016updated 29 Jul 2021 3:42pm

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.

By Nadia Valman

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.”

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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.

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