Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

 

Melvina Walker


Melvina Walker and Nellie Cressall. Photograph: Norah Smyth/Institute of Social History

“…keep your eyes open,” Melvina Walker said to her fellow poor and working-class women. “…Organize yourselves, don’t be led away by people with ‘superior brains,’ we have something more than that; we have practical experience.”

From her first involvement with the Women’s Social and Political Union and the leadership of the Pankhursts, Walker strained against the middle-class scope of the suffrage and feminist movements of her time. Walker was married to a dockworker and worked in London’s East End. She criticized the WSPU’s dismissal of the needs of mothers and the organization’s divide from those who had to work for a living, despite their sacrifices for the cause. (Working women often used their one day a week off from work to walk to the city’s center and participate in the WSPU’s protests and speeches, adding their voices to the rallying cry for their rights.

Walker distinguished herself as a powerful public speaker and a leader able to energize the East End workers. “She seemed to me like a woman of the French Revolution,” Sylvia Pankhurst said of Walker’s fiery speaking style. “I could imagine her on the barricades, waving the bonnet rouge, urging on the fighters with impassioned cries. When in full blood of her oratory, she appeared the very embodiment of toiling, famine-ridden, proletarian womanhood.”

In 1914, the East London section of the WSPU was expelled from the organization specifically because of their “socialist” focus that emphasized class as well as gender reform. Walker and others then became the East London Federation of Suffragettes. In the coming years, the name would change again, becoming the Women’s Suffrage Federation in 1916, then the Workers Socialist Federation in 1918, revealing not only the commitment to socialism, but also their support of the Russian Revolution.

Walker often attended political gatherings to meet other working women “who have the same struggle as I to live and who like myself have been chloroformed in the past by parsons and pious ladies who tell poor women that if they want better homes they must wait till they get up above for heaven is their home,” she wrote in The Worker’s Dreadnought, a newspaper published by the East London organization.

 

 

Walker distinguished herself as a powerful public speaker and a leader able to energize the East End workers. “She seemed to me like a woman of the French Revolution,” Sylvia Pankhurst said of Walker’s fiery speaking style. “I could imagine her on the barricades, waving the bonnet rouge, urging on the fighters with impassioned cries. When in full blood of her oratory, she appeared the very embodiment of toiling, famine-ridden, proletarian womanhood.”

Throughout the rest of her life, Walker’s political fire stayed fractured from the mainstream suffrage movement. She turned her energy to creating labor unions, fighting for workers’ rights, and opposing the United Kingdom’s involvement in the uprising in Russia. Wrote Henry Pollitt, who later became general secretary of the Communist Party, “Mrs. Walker of Poplar toiled like a Trojan, on a shopping morning you could rely on seeing her in Crisp Street, talking to groups of women about Russia and how we must help, asking them to tell their husbands to keep their eyes skinned to see that no munitions went to those trying to crush the revolution.”

“Feminism is not enough,” was a common phrase amongst Walker and those activists like her. The Workers’ Dreadnought as a publication summed up their ultimate philosophical disagreement with organizations like the WSPU. They were unable to “assent to the old-fashioned suffragist standpoint that the political activities of women must begin and end with two subjects, Votes for Women and venereal diseases.”