WHEN Tower Hamlets council received a planning application for a museum to "recognise and celebrate the women of the East End who have shaped history", illustrated with pictures of suffragettes and Asian women campaigning against racist killings, there was little warning that what would eventually open on Cable Street would be one dedicated to Jack the Ripper, emblazoned with a silhouette of the serial killer.
Women immediately fought back. An online petition demanding closure of the museum was launched by Becky Warnock, and a series of protests began outside the premises, joined by the Bishop of Stepney, the Rt Revd Adrian Newman, who described it as "a spectacle that exploits women and panders to the excesses of the Ripper myth".
Last week, activists had an opportunity to celebrate, at the opening of an exhibition at St-George-in-the-East designed to fulfil the original promise of the planning application.
Abbie Gilligan, of the East End Women’s Collective, described it as an opportunity to "remember and celebrate some of the incredible women who have shaped this area, and beyond". It was a history that "cannot be reduced to one as victims of male violence".
The launch heard from Josephine Knowles, co-director of Beyond the Streets, a charity working to end sexual exploitation, who described how women caught up in it were misunderstood and rarely listened to. She played a recording made by "Cat", who explained how "it is not something that a woman plans."
The exhibition includes displays on religious activism, including the stories of Catherine Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army, and Elizabeth Neale, who founded the Anglican Community of the Holy Cross in Wapping, which hosted an open house for prostitutes.
In November, the church held a service of memorial for victims of gender-based violence. The Priest-in-Charge, Canon Angus Ritchie, said that the congregation had decided that, besides "protesting, we wanted to do something positive. The whole Jack the Ripper industry is one which both objectifies women and simply casts them as victims of violence, and there’s a really important story to be told . . . about the role that women have had in achieving change, which is important for how we think about women and justice today."
“East End Women: The Real Story” will be on display at St-George-in-the-East until 9 July