Making Her Mark: 100 years of women’s activism in Hackney

© Lenthall Road Workshop

© Lenthall Road Workshop


In 1918 most women over 30 gained the right to vote in parliamentary elections. The same year also saw the first general election where women took part as voters and candidates. But the story of women’s activism in Hackney doesn’t begin or end with the suffragettes…

Over the past 100 years, local women have brought about change in their community and in wider society, both within and outside of traditional democratic politics.

The Making Her Mark exhibition tells the story of women-led activism in Hackney from 1918 to the present day, through political campaigns, industrial action, peaceful protest, direct action, and the arts.

It was created by the East End Women’s Museum in collaboration with Hackney Museum and was on display at Hackney Museum from February - May 2018. Curation was led by a community advisory panel who challenged us to uncover hidden stories of women who have changed society, from a wide variety of backgrounds and often despite numerous disadvantages.

We were unable to recreate the whole Making Her Mark exhibition online but here are some highlights.


Before the vote

In the 1600s Hackney was described as ‘The Ladies University’. By 1694 three of the thirteen well-known ladies boarding schools in the country were in Hackney.

Pioneering educators continued to be drawn to the area. In 1824 Fleetwood House, Stoke Newington became the Newington Academy for Girls, an experimental school run by Susanna Corder, which broke new ground by teaching subjects such as astronomy, chemistry and physics to girls.

It is unsurprising then that the area was home to many hugely influential women writers. These include some of the earliestchampions for the universal education of women, an idea then viewed as radical and dangerous.

Even without the parliamentary vote, Hackney women were shaping policy in education and poor relief from the late 1800s as elected representatives on school boards and as poor law guardians. Following the Qualification of Women Act 1907, women played an influential role in Hackney’s local politics, both voting and standing in local elections.

In 1910, Nettie Adler was elected as the Progressive Party candidate for the Central Hackney Division of the London County Council. The daughter of the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations, she campaigned on “social questions affecting the welfare of women and children and especially in matters relating to the industrial status of women workers.”

Reproduction of ‘The gentlewomans companion’ 1682. Wellcome Library, London.

Hannah WOOLLEY, 1623 - after 1677

“We are debar’d from the knowledge of humane learning, lest our pregnant Wits should rival the towering conceits of our insulting Lords and Masters.”

Hannah Woolley was one of the earliest and most vocal champions of women’s education, and an internationally successful author at a time when it was rare for a woman to be a professional writer.

After the death of her parents, Woolley became a teacher aged only 14. She later ran a school in Hackney with as many as sixty pupils.

She published several popular books in which she asserted the essential intellectual equality of the sexes. Woolley insisted that women were capable of the same achievements as men if given the same educational advantages.

One of the photographs included in Malvery’s book The Soul Market

Olive Christian Malvery, 1871 – 1914

“The first book that roused the public to shame and sympathy.”

Olive Christian Malvery was a pioneering undercover journalist and social reformer of mixed Asian and European heritage, best known for her investigations into the working conditions of poor women and children in London.

Malvery was born in what is now Pakistan. After her parents separated she was raised in India by her grandparents before moving to Britain c.1898.  She was an actively involved with 'The Girl’s Guild of Good Life' based at Hoxton Hall, and after befriending many of the poor local women was inspired to explore women’s work in various trades in London. To do this she went undercover as a flower seller, factory girl, and waitress.

The articles were eventually published together as ‘The Soul Market’. The book was a huge success. Malvery used the royalties to build two shelters for homeless women in London and went on to write another exposé on child labour.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie (c. 1797)

Mary Wollstonecraft, 1759 – 1797

“The DIVINE RIGHT of husbands, like the divine right of kings, may, it is hoped, in this enlightened age, be contested without danger.”

Mary Wollstonecraft was a radical author and philosopher who challenged convention in her life and her writing. She wrote what many view as the founding text of feminism and inspired women’s suffrage campaigners, including Millicent Fawcett.

In 1783 she opened a school for girls in Newington Green with her sister and best friend. She wrote about her experiences in her first book ‘Thoughts On The Education Of Daughters’.

Wollstonecraft was an influential figure amongst the community of radical thinkers at Newington Green. In 1792 she published ‘Vindication Of The Rights of Woman’ which argued that women were not naturally inferior to men, and it was a lack of education which stopped women from fulfilling their potential. It became an instant bestseller, translated into French and German, and published in America.

This petition has been recently conserved by Hackney Archives and the National Conservation Service to commemorate the centenary of The Representation of the People Act (1918).

The Humble Petition, c.1900-1910

“The exclusion of Women, otherwise legally qualified, from voting in the election for Members of Parliament is injurious to those from whom the vote is withheld, and contrary to the principle of just representation.”

Haggerston residents signed this petition asking for women to be given the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

A large number of people signed with an ‘X’. This may be because they could not write their name, and suggests that many local women at this time did not have access to an education.

Despite this they clearly still wished to have their views represented in national government.

Anna Letitia Barbauld by John Chapman (c. 1798) National Portrait Gallery : NPG D4457

Anna Letitia Barbauld, 1743 - 1825

In the late 1700s, when politics was largely regarded as a man’s concern, Anna Barbauld’s radical writings proved women’s ability to publicly engage in politics.

She attacked the international Slave Trade in her influential poem ‘Epistle to William Wilberforce…’ and took an anti-war position in ‘Sins of Government, Sins of the Nation’. She was also one of the earliest children’s authors.

Readers were often shocked to discover that her reasoned arguments were the work of a woman, and other female authors began to follow her ground-breaking example.

She moved to Stoke Newington in 1802 when her husband became minister of

Newington Green Chapel. Despite her success, Barbauld had a difficult and sometimes violent home life. In one case she had to escape the house when her husband chased her with a knife.

Votes for Women Badge.jpg

Votes for Women badge, early 20th century

In 1903, the ‘Votes for Women’ campaign was energised by the creation of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

Women at this time had been campaigning for the right to vote in British parliamentary elections for over half a century through non-violent means such as petitions. Followers of the WSPU – who became known as the suffragettes - took a more militant approach, breaking the law by trespassing and vandalising property.

Many suffragettes were sent to prison, including the owner of this badge, Gertrude Hussey, who was once imprisoned with Sylvia Pankhurst, who was one of the WSPU’s founders.

In 1918 the Representation of the People Act awarded the vote to some women over 30. Ten years later all women won the vote at 21, the same age as men.

Beyond the vote

Women have played an influential role in both local and national politics since they were first able to vote and to stand in elections. 1918 was the first year in which women over the age of 30 could vote in parliamentary elections, and stand for election as Members of Parliament (MPs).

In Hackney, 1918 also saw the elections of Florence May Ashdown and Muriel Wragge, the first women councillors to stand on Hackney and Shoreditch Borough Councils respectively. Over the last hundred years, women from a wide range of political parties have stood for election in Hackney, Shoreditch and Stoke Newington. Though today only 32% of MPs are women, both of Hackney’s elected parliamentary representatives – Diane Abbott and Meg Hillier - are.

Extending the right to vote to women meant that elected representatives and political candidates now had to appeal to women voters, and address the issues that impacted their lives. Between elections, women have shaped policy and legislation by lobbying decision makers at every level of government.

DIANE Abbott

“If ordinary people don’t engage in the political process, politics gets dominated by the powerful.”

Born in London to Jamaican parents, Abbott was the first black woman to become an MP when she was elected to represent Hackney North & Stoke Newington in 1987.

Abbott’s career in politics began in 1982 when she was elected to Westminster City Council. She was active in the Black Sections movement within the Labour Party, campaigning for greater ethnic minority political representation.

In this oral history interview, she talks about her background in community based activism, how she got into politics, and why it is so important to be involved today.

Poster, Hackney Museum. Original image, Hackney Flashers.

Hackney Council Women’s Sub-Committee Poster, 1982

Hackney Council set up a women’s rights committee to fulfil a manifesto pledge to give much greater attention to the needs of women in the borough. It was criticised in the local press as ‘sexism gone mad’.

This poster promotes the first meeting at Hackney Town Hall which 150 women attended. The Committee explored pre-school childcare, jobs, domestic violence, racial disadvantage and welfare rights. Early successes include the removal of sexist language from the council minutes and the introduction of guidelines and training for staff.

Few ethnic minority or young women attended. When the Committee initially failed to campaign against the deportation of a mother and children to Ghana, Lester Lewis of the Hackney Black People’s Association complained that “‘Hackney Listens to Women’ apparently only applies to white women.”


“I’m terribly sorry officer. But I helped write the law, so I think I know better than you what it says!”

Roz Kaveney is a British writer, critic, and poet living in Hackney. She is also a founding member of Feminists Against Censorship, a former deputy chair of Liberty and has worked as transgender rights activist.

She was invited to be part of a policy forum during the creation of The Gender Recognition Act (2004) a law which enabled trans people to get their gender identity legally recognised on their birth certificate and other documents for the first time. Kaveney also worked on the Equalities Act (2010).

In a film [video and transcript to follow] featured in the exhibition she discusses her role in shaping the Gender Recognition Act, the issues and the moral questions raised by the process, and why the current legislation is in need of reform.

Workers’ rights

Women in Hackney have been active in movements seeking fair treatment for workers from employers. Many took part in one of the most famous strikes by women workers in 1888 at the Bryant and May Factory. Their success was reported all over the country, inspiring others to see that they could make also make a difference.

One of the main ways that people can challenge unfair treatment or exploitation in their workplace is through a trade union. A trade union is an organised group of workers in a workplace or a type of job which is formed to protect and further their rights and interests.

Workplace trade union representatives can negotiate with management about pay, benefits, and work hours. Everyone in the UK has the legal right to join a trade union if they wish.

In the past women often used union tactics – such as going on strike – without being members of an official union, which tended to be dominated by men. Efforts to increase women’s involvement include members of the Hackney Trades Council creating a Women’s Sub-Committee in 1974. This highlighted some of the issues faced by women trying to organise within union movements, such as lack of childcare facilities meant meetings had to be held at members’ own houses.

Since then, women have held senior roles in local Hackney branches of unions.

TUC Library, part of the Special Collections at London Metropolitan University

BUS Girls’ Strike, 1918

“We women are going to stand strong to the last and will not go back till they tell us we’ve got the 5s”

During the First World War women did many jobs that had previously only been done by men, including working on buses as drivers and conductors. However, women were typically paid half a man’s wages.

In Summer 1918, a five shilling a week bonus was given to men, but not to women.

Women working at the bus depot and garage in Hackney were some of the first to go on strike, stopping work until they were given the same bonus.

Within a week an estimated 18,000 women bus, train, and tram workers around the country had joined the strike. Within a month the government agreed to give women the five shilling bonus.

This pamphlet celebrates the successful strike, and suggests that it will help end the idea that men should be paid more for the same work.

Cartoon from Hackney People’s Press (if you have any information about who drew this please contact us!)

Hackney Homeworking Campaign, 1977-1979

Homeworkers were usually women and recent immigrants speaking little English.

Forced to stay at home to care for relatives or small children, they would sew garments or other work for pay described as ‘slave labour rates’. With no enforceable Health and Safety laws, it was often dangerous. Many were afraid to speak out as they feared they were somehow breaking the law.

This campaign brought homeworkers together to demand better working conditions.

They shared information by producing leaflets in different languages and conducted surveys about the pay and working conditions. In 1978 they identified around 200 manufacturers in Hackney that employed homeworkers, despite only 31 being registered with the council.

As a result in November 1979, Hackney Council became the first in the country to appoint a Homeworking Officer to get firms to register and to investigate alternatives to homeworking.

Cover of the replica Rego Strikers songbook, courtesy of the Bishopsgate Institute

Rego and Polikoff Strike Songs, 1928-1929

“We mind our manners

Behind our union banners

We want justice

Wherever we go.”

Rego Clothiers Ltd. was a clothes factory based on Bethnal Green Road, Shoreditch. In 1928, the management decided to move the factory to Edmonton without giving the young women workers a say in the decision. The women’s pay was reduced, despite the fact that their travel costs had increased because of the move.

Around 600 women went on strike for fairer pay. To raise money and keep their morale high, they marched around singing popular songs with the words changed to make fun of the factory owners. After 12 weeks the management agreed to a settlement and all the women went back to work.

The following year women at Polikoff Ltd on Mare Street, Hackney also went on strike.

They were unsuccessful, but won public support with the same humorous songs. The strike songs were so popular that a songbook was published to raise money for their union.

Campaigns and direct action

Campaigns are organised efforts by individuals or groups to achieve a goal, often to influence a decision, for example whether a bill should become a law. Campaigners may use a wide range of different approaches – from researching and publishing information, pressuring political figures, to holding demonstrations and protests in public spaces.

Direct action seeks to achieve a goal directly through actions such as a boycott, strike, trespassing, or a ‘sit in’ – rather than through negotiation with elected representatives.

Sometimes direct action can involve civil disobedience, where people break a law deliberately because they believe that law is unjust. For example, some women’s suffrage campaigners refused to pay their taxes because they believed they should not have to do so while they didn’t have the vote, and could not say how their taxes were spent.

In some cases, women have committed violence or criminal damage as part of a campaign. In 1983, as part of an organised series of actions taking place nationally, anti-pornography campaigners paintbombed a video shop in Hackney.

Supporters of the nursery nurses’ campaign march to a rally outside Hackney Town Hall, 1975. Hackney People’s Press.


Nursery staff were among the lowest paid of council employees, working long hours in understaffed nurseries with no maternity leave or childcare provision of their own.

When the council withdrew an agreed pay increase, 80 women nursery workers took industrial action supported by local unions. They refused to collect fees from parents or work any unpaid overtime until their demands for higher pay, more staff and shorter hours were met.

A committee found Hackney Council at fault and forced them to keep the pay increase. The nursery nurses unanimously accepted a 36 (rather than 40) hour week and back-dated pay.

The women saw the campaign as part of fighting for better nursery conditions. At the time there were 1000 children on the waiting list for local nurseries. Better pay and working conditions would mean more staff, enabling them to take on more children.

Hackney Women’s Peace Camp, photograph by David Hoffman.

Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp

“The women looked cold and tired but determined and we were impressed by their sacrifice and grateful for the opportunity to show our solidarity.”

In 1981, the British Government agreed that American nuclear cruise missiles could be housed at an RAF base at Greenham Common in Berkshire. In September that year, 36 women chained themselves to the base’s fence in protest against nuclear weapons.

For the next 19 years women protested at the site, forming an almost permanent peace camp, repeatedly breaking into the base and cutting down the fences, a part of which is shown here.

A large group of women from Hackney joined the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, and played a major role in many of the protests. Some of these went on to establish a temporary women’s peace camp in front of Hackney Town Hall in 1984.

‘Michael Ferreira’s funeral 1979’ by Alan Denney


“It is the experience of trying to keep families together and protect them against police incursions and racist attacks, that has led black women — as mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts, to the forefront of political protest.”

Women have been prominent and active in local campaigns for justice from the police for members of the African and Caribbean community.

Trevor Monerville was 19 in 1987 when, after being held in Stoke Newington Police Station, he sustained injuries requiring him to be put on a life support machine. His aunt, Annette Monerville, led the campaign demanding a public inquiry and justice for Trevor.

In 1985 the Clapton Park Action Group was formed by mostly Black women. They campaigned against the police presence on the square of Clapton Park Estate used by their children.

East End Peace Women’s Group in action in Hackney, photograph by David Hoffman.

Anti-nuclear road blocks, 1984

Twice in March 1984, traffic was brought to a standstill at Dalston Junction by Hackney Greenham women. They wanted to draw the public’s attention to the nuclear cruise missiles at the Greenham Common Airbase and preparations for their deployment.

On each occasion women had banners and leaflets telling drivers and pedestrians about the potential presence on public roads of cruise missile launchers.

Police arrived and threatened the women sitting in the road with arrest. However each blockade ended peacefully, with protestors successfully completing their planned 10-20 minute demonstrations.


Sisters Uncut is a direct action group opposing cuts to UK government services for domestic abuse survivors.

In 2015 the group attracted worldwide attention by staging a ‘die-in’ on the red carpet of the Suffragette film premiere while wearing these jumpsuits. With the chant ‘Dead Women Can’t Vote’, they used the publicity of the night to remind the world that in the UK, two women every week were still killed by current or former partners.

In 2016, East End Sisters Uncut transformed an empty council flat in Marian Court, Homerton, into a community centre as a protest against the lack of social housing available for women escaping domestic abuse in East London. One of the campaign’s key slogans was ‘How can they leave when there is nowhere to go?’

Hackney Abortion Campaign badge, Hackney Museum.

Hackney Abortion Campaign badge, Hackney Museum.

Hackney Abortion Campaign, 1970s

Hackney Abortion Campaign (HAC) fought for the right of women to choose if and when she has a child. They campaigned against forced sterilisation, called for freely available contraception, and for abortions to be available locally on the NHS.

In 1977 Hackney Council arranged for housing for homeless young pregnant women to be provided by ‘Let Live’, an anti-abortion charity that had been found to give biased advice. The HAC gathered around 150 people to protest outside council meetings, and the council overturned their decision.”

When in 1977 William Benyon introduced a bill to amend the Abortion Act, HAC campaigned against it and picketed outside the MP’s London home. After eight months of public debate the bill was defeated.

Doing it themselves

Many times over the last 100 years in Hackney, women have found that a vital service or facility was missing, or that existing mainstream services were not meeting their needs. Rather than waiting for someone else to step in, they have tried to meet the need themselves by coming together with others in the community.

These services have overwhelmingly targeted issues impacting the lives of women, whether it was a meeting space, healthcare, or a refuge for women escaping domestic abuse.

Often these initiatives started with no funding and relied entirely on volunteers. Providing these services highlighted the vital need for them and the social benefit they provided. As a result, many would go on to became registered charities or receive funding from a local authority.

Many of the nurseries and child day care centres open in Hackney today were set up by activists from the 1970s onwards in response to a desperate lack of facilities for pre-school children, with up to 1,000 on the waiting list for nursery places.

Parents and staff found unused sites such as church halls, empty houses and flats and began ‘Community Nurseries’ for babies and small children, before gaining financial assistance from Hackney Council or other funders. Being run as co-operatives between parents and staff, they were free to provide alternative or even radical approaches to childcare.

Hackney Women’s Aid

Hackney Women’s Aid was started in 1973 by a group of local women to provide the first refuge in Hackney for women fleeing domestic violence.

They were granted the short term use of a series of houses by both the Greater London and Hackney Councils, the first of which was on Rushmore Cresent, Clapton. The buildings required a lot of work to transform them into shelters, and with no grants or formal funding they raised the money needed by holding jumble sales and raffles, and asking for donations.

At first the refuges were run by a handful of volunteers in their spare time alongside full-time jobs. There were some disasters including one building destroyed by fire and the roof collapsing in another, leaving the Borough without any refuge service for months at a time.

Despite setbacks, within the first nine months Hackney Women’s Aid gave refuge to over 50 women and their children. Today, they deliver frontline services to around 2,000 women and girls a year as the charity The Nia Project.

Ngozi Fulani, SISTAH SPACE

Sistah Space is a volunteer-run service based in Hackney working with women and girls in the African and Caribbean community affected by domestic or sexual abuse. African heritage women have some of the highest rates of underreporting and can be reluctant to use mainstream services.

Sistah Space was founded after the violent murder of Valerie Forde and her 23 month old child by an ex-partner. They have no formal funding.

Ngozi Fulani is a founder of Sistah Space, and an Independent Domestic Violence Advisor. She works as a full time volunteer, available round the clock for women experiencing domestic or sexual abuse.

She also works to raise awareness of the challenges and barriers experienced by people of African heritage when accessing mainstream services, and the cultural sensitivities when working with women and girls from these communities.

In this interview she discusses how and why she started Sistah Space.

Essex Road Women’s Centre

“When we find that we do share experiences, it’s not only a big relief, but it makes it easier to try and change things that need changing… it allows us to build our confidence and strength that we as women could change things.”

In February 1974 the Women’s Centre was opened in Islington on the border with Hackney. It grew out of a need to bring together women to discuss their experiences, especially when many were facing isolation at home as primary carers of their children.

As a result, many local women’s groups, campaigns and activities started at the centre.

One of these was a health group, which provided pregnancy testing services and a woman doctor for advice sessions.

Arts and media

From the 1970s onwards, Hackney has been home to a number of community arts organisations and publishing initiatives staffed by women.

Many of these organisations were trying to expand who could be involved in the creation of making art. They believed that literacy was a form of empowerment and that people could shape a better future together through art and writing.

Individuals, groups and organisations in Hackney took part in, influenced and helped shape the landscape of arts and culture in Hackney and across the country through their engagement with arts and media. There was a strong interest in promoting the work of women who might otherwise be overlooked because of prejudice against their race, class, sexuality, or disability, as well as gender.

By developing women’s skills in different forms of media – photography, screen-printing, writing, and performance arts, women gained new tools to help tackle social issues through local radical movements. This inspired and nurtured future generations of women to express themselves through the power of artistic expression.


Sheba was a Dalston based independent collective, founded in 1981, by six women with media backgrounds. During the early years members of the collective raised funds for individual books and worked voluntarily. To combat racism, they transformed the structure of the collective to ensure an even mix of women from different ethnic backgrounds.

Many of the books published explored experiences of race, class, and sexuality. Unlike other women’s presses, Sheba was notable for its early publishing of works for children and young adults.

Sheba was the UK publisher of civil rights activist Audre Lorde, and published the country’s first collection of lesbian erotica. Many famous writers were first published by Sheba before finding commercial success with larger publishers.

Poster by Lenthall Road Workshop, on loan by Rebecca Wilson

Lenthall Road Workshop, Haggerston

Based in Haggerston, the Lenthall Road Workshop supported users to create their own screen prints to express themselves, develop their skills or to print leaflets, posters, postcards or badges for wider distribution. They were used by Hackney Women’s Aid, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Rock Against Racism, Centerprise and many others.

The workshop evolved over time to become a women’s photography and screenprinting centre for the local community. Through using the traditionally male-dominated skills of printing and photography, they produced images that challenged the norm of ‘White, male, middle class, able-bodied heterosexual which glare from every hoarding, magazine and TV’.

By developing photography and screen-printing skills, women were empowered to help tackle social issues through local radical movements. These posters promote events for International Women’s Day, a worldwide annual event calling for global gender equality.

Letterbox Library co-founder Gillian Harris, who started Letterbox from her home in Clapton in 1983 with Hackney Museum manager Rebecca Odell


In 1983, single parents Iven Spicer and Gillian Harris were frustrated at not being able to find books for their children with multi-cultural characters or non-sexist messages.

From their front room in Hackney, they set up a book club for stories that reflected the diversity of society, where both boys and girls are shown as independent, resourceful, caring and emotional.

In just five years this women’s cooperative had over 6000 members in over 40 countries.

Today Letterbox Library is a non-profit social enterprise that believes that challenging stereotypes and discrimination should play a fundamental part in every child’s education. They supply books celebrating equality, diversity and inclusion to schools, nurseries, children’s centres, libraries, charities and homes throughout the UK.


The East End Women’s Museum and Hackney Museum would like to thank all the staff and volunteers that made the Making Her Mark exhibition possible, as well as all our interviewees and everyone who contributed objects, photographs, or research. We’d also like to thank the archives and organisations who loaned items to us for the exhibition including Hackney Archives, TUC Collections Library, the Bishopsgate Institute Library, On The Record, and the Women’s Library. See the full list of acknowledgements (PDF).