Jessie Donaldson, Annie Besant, Rebecca, Bessie Smith, and all that jazz.

Rebecca Riots

“Better remain silent, better not even think, if you are not prepared to act”. So wrote Annie Besant, who was born in London in 1847. Radical sentiments for a radical woman.

She might have had Jessie Donaldson in mind.

Jesse was born in Bristol in 1799 and later moved to Swansea where she became an active anti-slavery campaigner, following in the footsteps of her father, Samuel Heineken. Yeah, yeah, I know. The man who reached the parts other abolitionists couldn’t reach. Swansea was a real hot spot for abolitionists at the time and Jessie spent most of her 90 year life opposing slavery: not from the relative comfort of her life as a school teacher in Wales, but by moving to Ohio.

She went to the United States in her mid-fifties and established a safe house on the ‘underground railroad’, which was part of a network used by slaves in the south to escape to the north and Canada. Shades of Atwood’s Gilead!

Talking of shades. so many women, particularly black women, have found themselves with their reputations overshadowed by their white contemporaries or by the men in their lives. It took many years for Mary Seacole’s reputation to be acknowledged and she was certainly no shrinking violet! I guess the less than conventional nature of her medical and tending ministries and the fact that she was Jamaican, made her second place behind Florence Nightingale pretty much inevitable. Still she is reputed to be the subject of the first statue of a Black Woman in the UK so she still has something to say today.

Incidentally, I worked for a short while in Mary Seacole House in Lambeth, back in the early 2000’s but had to go out of my way to find out who she was. Sad old world.

But, back to Besant, who was no slouch herself.

She too was a real pioneer, a writer, a women’s rights campaigner, she prompted and supported the 1888 Matchgirls Strike, that eventually resulted in the the use of white phosphorus being banned in the UK. She was convicted in 1877 for publishing a book advocating birth control.

She also supported self rule across the British Empire and, after moving to India, was elected president of the Congress Party which eventually took power upon independence in 1947.

Going off on a completely different tack , we should take a look at Bessie Smith. She was regarded as a “rough” woman and her songs like Jail House Blues, Work House Blues, Prison Blues, Sing Sing Prison Blues and Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair dealt with real social problems of the time. Her lyrics often focussed critically on black working class issues, and she was not afraid to live the life that she portrayed in her songs.

She was out there, doing what she did best, and was undoubtedly one of the most gifted blues singers of her time. She spoke for many minority groups and her themes were always challenging to the predominately white establishment. She could have had a much more comfortable life if she had toned it all down a bit, but what the hell?

Not bad CV’s for women of action eh?

Real role models, some scarcely known, appreciated by very few, who managed, in very different ways to have a significant impact on the societies that they found themselves in.

The point is that they each had a voice or set of abilities and used them in ways that suited themselves and what made them tick.

Thankfully that tradition carries on, but with too few strong voices calling for action and leading by example. We need women like this to lead our society into a future, if we are to have any chance of securing one.

Hiding behind a woman’s skirt…

By way of a backhanded compliment, I can’t let the Rebecca Riots slide by unmentioned.

These were protests against the imposition of tolls and sidebars on the use of roads in South and West Wales. The impact on the farming community, already living on the edge, was significant and groups were organised, mainly by men, to attack the toll gates in the name of the daughters of Rebecca. The genesis of the name was the biblical character Rebecca (in fact Genesis 24 v60, KJV : And they blessed Rebekah, and said unto her, Thou art our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seeds possess the gate of those which hate them). With suitable acts of theatre, mock trials and the like, groups of men dressed up as women, blacked their faces to avoid recognition and set off to pull down the gates.

Action indeed! It seems to have hit, often inadvertently, so many of today’s touchpoints: Poverty; attacks against the moneyed classes and iniquitous taxation; lack of social care networks; even cross-dressing and Blackface.

Don’t squabble, RESIST!

These people saw a world that they didn’t like, and they set out to change it. We need far more of them.

The common theme seems to be the sense of outrage and helplessness that comes when people know that they are disenfranchised; that their views carry no weight.

There are many ways of expressing dissatisfaction, disgust, unease, opposition to the powerful. Their main tools seem to focus on fragmenting their opposition through division and distraction. We do not have to let this succeed!

When the enemy is charging over the hill to kill your loved ones, or moving stealthily through the undergrowth to steal all that you have worked for, you need to focus on them. Don’t be moved by amazing rhetoric, by distracting ideas, by threats of war, by jingoistic calls to arms against a sea of troubles – keep your sights on the the whites of their eyes and let them have both barrels.

Shooting the victim next to you will not help your cause, but it will bring succour to your common enemy.

So the next time you feel like putting down a young radical activist, or a strong but aging voice from our recent past, ask yourself what part you are prepared to play to make this world a better place, and if you can’t think of one, shut the fuck up!

When citizens eventually realise that they have no options they might, just might, begin to stir themselves. So, to return to the thoughts of Annie Besant, it is down to those of us who are capable of talking, writing and thinking, performing, demonstrating, protesting, or even just taking the piss, to bring that action forward with whatever means we can muster.

It is down to the rest of us to offer our tacit support at the very least. If it opposes our common enemy, it can’t be all bad.

Remember today’s Government mantra:


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