Catherine Hokin tells the story of Birmingham activist and campaigner, Jessie Eden.
The passing of the Representation of the People Act on February 6th 1918, giving women over 30 the vote, was a great victory but, in terms of female suffrage, it was a step in the wider story not the end of the journey. That the story continues is due to the women who continued (and continue) to fight for a female voice in all levels of political and social participation – one such woman was Birmingham trade union activist Jessie Eden
Eden’s name may be familiar due to her inclusion in the BBC’s 1920s gangster series Peaky Blinders. In this her activism is secondary to her role as Cillian Murphy’s love interest, hopefully a balance that will be addressed in future series. Jessie Eden was a champion of women and social justice her whole life. Born in 1902, to a mother who herself became a wartime munitions worker, by 1925 Eden was working at the Joseph Lucas Motor Components Factory and was a shop-steward for the Transport and General Workers’ Union.
The mid-twenties was a time of massive working class protest culminating in the 1926 General Strike. The percentage of unionised women in the Lucas factory was tiny and completely over-shadowed by the 10,000 non-unionised women, nevertheless Eden marched the women in her section out. When she was interviewed by the Birmingham Post on the Strike’s 50th anniversary in 1976, Eden recalled the privations of the period: “Sacrifices had to be made. We had practically no meat during the strike. We lived on bread, jam and marge.” She also recalled her own brush with the law on the evening of the May Day march which saw a procession of 25,000 people, witnessed by another 100,000. “One policeman put his hands on my arm. They were telling me to go home, but the crowd howled, ‘Hey, leave her alone’ and then some men came and pushed the policemen away. They didn’t do anything after that. I think they could see that there would have been a riot. I was never frightened of the police or the troops because I had the people with me.”
1926 was a brave move but only a marker of what was to come. In 1931 Eden led 10,000 women out of the Lucas factory on a week-long strike over new working practices which were driving female workers to the point of collapse. The irony was that the new working speeds intended as a result of new American-designed systems were to be based on Jessie’s work-rate as she was judged as an exemplar of efficiency. A further irony was that Eden, now a member of the Communist Party, was one of those who lost her job when a furious management imposed cutbacks. The 1931 strike is credited with starting mass unionisation among women workers but its aftermath was tough on Eden who was apparently victimised and struggled to find work. For the next two years there is no record of her activities in the UK, not because she had given up the fight but because she was actually in Moscow, rallying Soviet women construction workers employed building the city’s metro. No mean feat for a tiny working-class woman from Birmingham.
While in Russia Eden is also known to have attended the Comintern’s Lenin School for cadre development in Moscow and, by the time she returned, she was an expert public speaker, something she put to great use championing her next cause: the plight of housing tenants. Eden was a key figure in the 1939 Birmingham Rent Strike which brought 49,000 tenants out on strike, successfully winning them rent control in the council and private sector, and she continued to speak at Communist Party rallies on the issue of housing throughout the war. Eden became more and more of a public figure, contesting the 1945 General Election as a Communist Party candidate and becoming elected a councillor later in the year. Twenty five years later in 1969, now aged 67, she was still an unstoppable voice for justice leading protest marches against the Vietnam War.
In Birmingham, the only statue of a woman in the city centre is currently Queen Victoria. As part of the 1918 commemorations, the City Council is compiling a list of heroic local women to inspire youngsters and, hopefully, give future developers a new direction when they are creating streets, buildings and statues. Jessie Eden is on the list – fingers crossed Birmingham finds a suitable memorial for an ordinary woman who truly made history.
Catherine Hokin‘s debut novel, Blood and Roses, brings a new perspective to the story of Margaret of Anjou and her pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses. Catherine also writes short stories – her latest (a dark twist on Mary Poppins) will be published by Writers’ Forum magazine in January – and blogs monthly for The History Girls.