Dispensing Wisdom: Women unite to celebrate centuries of struggle

Home to icons like Mary Wollstonecraft and suffragette Edith Margaret Garrud, Islington has always been at the forefront of feminist struggles – but the battle for women’s rights is still not over.

Women fighting today’s battles came together at Dispensing Wisdom, an event run by local arts charity All Change, on Monday 7 March at Islington Assembly Hall to celebrate centuries of female struggle.

Lela Kogbara, Islington’s Assistant Chief Executive, spoke at the event at Islington Assembly Hall. “What we’ve got to do is recognise that we can do anything, in any profession,” she said.

“Construction, for example. The council has just started a programme to try to get women into services like engineering and plumbing, because a lot of women think that’s not for them.”

Ms Kogbara, who survived a civil war in 1960s Nigeria, used herself as an example of female success in the face of adversity.

She said: “I came to this country as a child and a refugee. I went through all the trauma of war, of being shot at. I went to an all-girls school. I was the only black girl in my year, and there were lots of challenges.

“But I worked my way up, and eventually qualified as an accountant. If a refugee running from a war can get to the position of assistant chief executive for Islington Council, anyone can do it.”

The women-only event also featured a photography exhibition and poetry readings from local creatives, including women from Inspire!, a project run by local charity All Change in partnership with Islington Council, for young and expectant parents.

Randene Cameron, 21, first started going to Inspire! when she became pregnant at 16 years old. Ms Cameron now works for the initiative part-time.

“My role is to make sure that the girls always have something different to do. Four weeks ago we had self-defense, and in the morning sessions we do arts.”

Along with a number of mothers from Inspire! Ms Cameron also performed at the event. She read “Things They Don’t Tell You”, a five-stanza piece about the unspoken realities of childbirth.

The Dispensary project, created by Abira Hussein, Naomi Money and Jemima Wilson, uses art and literature to examine the role of healthcare for women in Islington over the last 100 years

Ms Cameron, along with a number of the mothers at Inspire!, has contributed her writing to the project. A compendium incorporating their work, The Dispensary, is being published by All Change and Manor Gardens Centre.

Using Islington Museum’s archives and oral interviews with older women from multicultural backgrounds, a photo-series and performance re-enacting scenes from history was created by young women working with artists Marysa Dowling, Kat Francois and Mila Sanders.

Describing her creative process, Ms Dowling said: “It was a bit of a luxury really, speaking to all these amazing women that you wouldn’t usually speak to and really getting to hear their stories.

“Everyone has to overcome struggles and fears and hardship, and it’s important for everyone to share those, especially women. I think we can learn a lot from each other.”

Ms Dowling also encouraged Dispensing Wisdom attendees to take part in her ongoing project, “The Movement of an Object”. Participants are encouraged to use blue plastic bags to represent their personal interpretations of bravery, strength, and freedom.

“It’s something i’ve been working on for the last 10 years,” she said. “I’ve been working on it in countries all around the world. It started in London and the idea is about connecting people through the use of an object.

“I get people to choose a location and what to do with the bag. Then we meet, take a photograph, and they nominate the next person.”

Ms Dowling explains the rationale behind using such a simple object to “make statements about your individual identity or something political”, saying: “It’s something that’s really malleable and common, that can be used without it being intimidating or having specific connotations.”

Some of those attending the event noted that the annual International Women’s Day does not do enough in itself to combat gender inequality.

Barbara Clark, a member of the Ransackers Association, which seeks funding for educational programmes for older people, argued that women had to learn to be self-reliant, without leaning on institutional support from events like IWD. “We need to believe in ourselves,” she said. “The onus is not always on others.”

Hannah Brewer, 19, is a young mother and employee of All Change who works on the B Project, an Islington based outreach programme for young women. She said: “I’ve learned quite a lot today, but there is a big but. What changes after International Women’s Day? We can have the day, but unless action is taken, will we get the things that we want?”