Spotlight: Women East

Our latest Spotlight is a guest post from Poplar HARCA’s Nicola Rushton. Inspired by the suffragette centenary, Nicola started Women East in Stroudley Walk, Bow, where Sylvia Pankhurst gave her first speech on the back of a cart.

November 2018 marked the centenary of female suffrage, 100 years since the first women got the vote. I had been working at Poplar HARCA as a Personal Assistant and learning about the political history in East London. Conversation about the past 100 years made me wonder about the next. Suffragettes like Sylvia Pankhurst and Minnie Lansbury inspired me and I noticed how so much of the area had been bombed in the war, removing much visible history. It made me think, what could we create now that could be our new start?

Poplar HARCA’s Accents team have an open-door policy to support any staff member with an idea of something they would like to do in the community, outside of their day job. Not quite sure of myself, I said I wanted to create a women’s empowerment project. I was encouraged and told to think big. Working as a receptionist and PA over the years, I had never been given such a progressive opportunity in any other workplace; and never before had been given such agency, which was daunting. But isn’t that what feminism is about – a woman having her own agency? And so, Women East was born.

Women East and artist Emma Curd ask: What do you want for the Next 100?

Using a closed down hairdressers, I worked with artist, Emma Curd, who was doing a residency with Bow Arts looking at the theme of women’s voices. This location in Stroudley Walk happened to be where Sylvia Pankhurst gave her first speech for the East London Federation of Suffragettes and with  Sylvia having been an artist herself, it became clear how arts and politics could become a useful tool for Women East, allowing us to express ourselves and make ourselves heard. We created a safe space for local women, a place that was about them – even if they just came in for a cup of tea. When it can feel as if public spaces are so often dominated by men, it is essential that we create space where women and girls feel that same right.

The change and expansion that is happening in this part of London is an opportunity for women. London’s strength is in its diversity and if we can use the strengths of those who are new to the area with those who are from the area, we can create real change and opportunities for each other. With Women East I’ve been able to bring together women from different organisations and parts of East London. Working at Poplar HARCA gives me access to people and resources that I wouldn’t otherwise and I call on other women to use their own resources to help create progress. No matter what your position or place in an organisation or society – we all have strengths, skills and passions that are needed, we can all be Women East.

This message came across clearly at The Next 100, an event in September 2019 to mark the beginning of a new century in the fight for gender equality. I wanted to celebrate the women who are making change here today. We had five fantastic speakers, each bringing something different to the conversation and united in their recognition of the work still to be done:

Dr. Halima Begum, international development expert, former British diplomat and Chair of the Women’s Environmental Network; Cllr Rachel Blake, Deputy Mayor and Cabinet Member for Planning, Air Quality and Tackling Poverty at LB Tower Hamlets; Harini Iyengar, barrister and co-leader of the Women’s Equality Party; Faiza Shaheen, director of CLASS and Labour Party candidate for Chingford and Woodford Green; and Deeba Syed, women’s rights advocate and sexual harassment lawyer; all spoke from their personal, professional and political experience as women of East London.  Rather amazingly, Helen Pankhurst, Sylvia’s granddaughter, was our Chair. We had come full circle.

Women East, from left to right: Halima Khanom, Nicola Rushton, Deeba Syed,  Dr. Halima Begum, Helen Pankhurst, Harini Iyengar, Faiza Shaheen and Cllr Rachel Blake.

Two themes kept recurring in that night’s conversation. The need for space, and unity through diversity. As women we must speak up for each other, make space for each other and create platforms for each other. I think if Sylvia and Minnie were there that night to watch these East End women in power, they would feel not only proud but vindicated. In this spirit, my next step is creating a network of women beyond Poplar and across the breadth of East London. A big gang that could be something of a unity ticket for this diverse, special and pretty bonkers part of our city. Let’s pool our resources.

You can join the gang at @women_east / hello@womeneast.co.uk