Probably the most poignant and instantly ‘legendary’ image of the still ongoing unrest triggered by police shootings of black men in various US cities is that of Black Lives Matter-protester Ieshia Evans, a 28-year-old mother in a flowing summer dress, facing a wall of heavily shielded and amply armed riot police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. We are deeply moved by the courage of this vulnerable lone woman placing herself in considerable danger as she stands up, physically and symbolically, to police brutality.
For many of these same reasons the sepia-toned photo of Blanche Edwards being arrested and led away from the fray in the East End of London on the 4th of October 1936, locked in the arms of two bobbies, has become one of the most reproduced images of the Battle of Cable Street.
Despite the ubiquity of this image, the student of history would be forgiven for assuming that the Battle of Cable Street was pretty much an exclusively male and masculine affair. From all quarters —the Blackshirts led by ‘New Fascist Man’ Sir Oswald Mosley, the various contingents of soldiers of resistance, and the police – the images and the voices of the male actors have prevailed. They dominated the initial reporting and framing of the event, as well as the commemorations that have occurred at five- and ten-yearly intervals since the 1980s.
The militarised language and imagery used to give narrative coherence and romance to the event has also served to masculinise this symbolic flashpoint in the history of the turbulent Thirties. Finally completed in 1983, the impressive and arresting Battle of Cable Street mural at Spitalfields in the East End – which depicts a tangle of fascists, protestors, and horse-mounted police – is another example of women being painted-out of the story.
Yet women were involved and deeply invested in and around the Battle of Cable Street. There is a long tradition of women taking to the streets in protest and in resistance. Vivid examples inevitably spring to mind: the French Revolution, Suffragette agitation, the Russian Revolution. During 1920s and 1930s in Britain women took to the streets for a number of causes and especially to demonstrate their opposition to war, state-sanctioned violence and their growing opposition to fascism. Women certainly recognised the general threat posed by fascism and authoritarianism to democracy, but they were also acutely aware of the threat posed to them as women. 1
While it is difficult to know exactly what proportion, significant numbers of Jewish and other anti-fascist women were among the estimated 100,000 protestors determined that the Blackshirts would not pass on 4 October, 1936. The protestors chose as their highly effective and affective slogan ‘They Shall Not Pass’ or ‘No Pasaran’, after Dolores Ibárruri’s speech delivered in Madrid on the 19th of July 1936. 2 Women have also, eventually, contributed their testimonies to the public memory and commemoration of the Battle of Cable Street.
We should also not overlook the fact that women were just as well represented among Mosley’s ranks. Women made up approximately 25 per cent of the membership of the British Union of Fascists. The movement has its own Women’s Section, trained women for public speaking and canvassing, and in self-defence (ju-jitsu classes were offered) and physical confrontation. Women wore the blackshirt, they took a prominent part in fascist marches and rallies and they joined in many of the scenes of violence and unrest that followed. 3
In the short term the BUF did well out of the Battle. There was a rise in recruitment and the fascists spun a narrative where they were the victims of mob violence and the upholders of law and order. The fascists were actually emboldened. In the months and indeed years that followed East End Jewish women remained vulnerable to fascist verbal attacks and intimidation, while Blackshirt women, if anything, only became more assertive and open in their Jew-baiting activities. As one Jewish Chronicle reporter remarked at a BUF meeting in Bethnal Green in December that year:
I noticed, once again, that the women were the chief protagonists in the use of filthy language and obscene remarks. They seem to ‘dance for joy’ when abusing the Jew. 4
Arguably it was behind the scenes where women’s — or rather one woman’s — influence probably made the most difference. Why did Mosley obey the command given by Commissioner of Police Sir Philip Game not to proceed along the planned route through the East End?
On the 4th of October Mosley was modelling the new Action Press uniform (a rip off of the Nazi SS uniform) and inspecting his most loyal supporters as they amassed to mark his movement’s fourth birthday. Two days later he was due in Berlin for a much more private, in fact a secret, event. On the 6th of October he married Diana Guinness at a ceremony at the Goebbels’ home, with Adolf Hitler as honoured guest.
Julie Gottlieb is the author of Feminine Fascism: Women in Britain’s Fascist Movement, 1923-1945 (2000) and more recently ‘Guilty Women’, Foreign Policy and Appeasement in Inter-war Britain (2015). She organised the event at the HRI, University of Sheffield, “Political Movements, Memory and Meaning: The Battle of Cable Street 80 Years On” which took place on the 29th September, 2016 and she is guest editor of the series of blog posts for History Matters. You can find Julie on twitter @JulieVGottlieb, and hear her talk about on Cable Street in a recent BBC radio interview [at 24 mins].
Image: Russian writer Mikhail Koltsov’s photo of Dolores Ibárruri, the originator of the slogan ‘No Pasaran’, or ‘They Shall Not Pass’ [via Wikicommons].
- See Julie V. Gottlieb, “Varieties of Feminist Anti-Fascism,” in (eds.) Nigel Copsey and Andrzej Olechnowicz, Varieties of Anti-Fascism: Britain in the Inter-war Period (2010), pp. 101-118. ↩
- The speech is also known as La Pasionaria. ↩
- Julie V. Gottlieb, “Women and Fascism in the East End,” in Jewish Culture and History, Vol. 1, no.2 (Winter 1998), pp.31-47. ↩
- Mosley in Bethnal Green,’ Jewish Chronicle, Dec. 11, 1936. ↩