Yesterday, the local news reported that another young woman had been fatally stabbed in my home city of Bristol.
Today, another local news source – this time in East London – reported another story about violence against women and girls. Except this time, it’s a story that celebrates? commemorates? explores as a historical curiosity? one of those things anyway, and it does it for a serial killer. I’m talking about the new Jack the Ripper museum that has opened on Cable Street.
Of course, in one way nothing links those two stories. It just hit me, rather hard. How at the same time that men are killing women at a rate of at least two a week, a museum has opened inviting people to gawp at, discover and explore the story of one of history’s most notorious killers of women – exit through the gift shop if you please.
As if fatal male violence against women and girls is confined to history. As if it’s nothing more than a historical curiosity. As if it’s not happening today.
And it struck me how, across popular culture, across our society, over and over again the killing of women is just reduced to a cult story – not something that happens to us everyday, and happens to us today for the same reasons as it did in the 1890s. It happens because these are gendered hate crimes. It happens because some men hate women. Because some men believe women have no human feelings, have no right to humanity.
It’s hard to decide what I’m most horrified by, when it comes to this Ripper museum. Is it the souvenir glass, that reduces women to a smudge of red blood whilst the killer is given a body, some movement, a sense of a personality? The logo, that once again reduces women to a smear of blood, whilst the killer is a full human being? Is it Mr Palmer-Edgcumbe explaining how the museum will look at ‘how and why the women got into the situation in the first place’? (because that’s how fatal male violence works, right? Women get themselves into these situations where men kill us. The men, well…let’s not give them any agency in this one instance, how about it?)
Or is it the fact that this museum was originally designed to celebrate women’s lives? That’s right. It was supposed to be a museum dedicated to telling herstory – to coin an old phrase that could have featured in the museum. In a grotesque subversion of its intention, it has now become a gory re-look at the man who kills women. Instead of a celebration of what women do, we now have a museum reminding us of what some men choose to do to women.
Yes, I think it’s that last one.
Imagine, for a moment, what that museum could have been. A look at the lives of London’s women throughout the ages. Okay, I only did A-level history and so the gaps in my knowledge are woeful, but bear with me. We could have had information about the women who campaigned with the Chartists, the women who disguised themselves as men to fight in wars, the women who dared to write, to paint, to sculpt, the working class women whose history has been ignored and silenced, the suffragists, the women of Cable Street in 1936, the abolitionist women, the suffragettes, the anti-racism campaigners, the women who have worked and shouted and created and fought and demanded that all women are taken seriously. We could have had feminists across the waves and politicians and activists and writers and creators and workers and trade unionists. We could have had a real celebration of everything that women have done throughout history – everything that women have spoken out for and contributed to and built for their sisters.
And instead of women whose lives were defined by what they lived and did, we have women who – thanks to the actions of a violent man – have had that life stolen from them, so that they have become defined instead by their deaths.
We have women robbed of their lives, robbed of their humanity.
We have women who have become the sideshow to a man’s story.
At the centre of it all, stands – quite literally – the man who killed them.
And we are reminded – once again – that as women, we’re more historically interesting when we’re a silenced, dumped body, than when we are raising our voices and campaigning for liberation.
And we are reminded – once again – that as women, we’re only interesting when we are props in a man’s story. Even better when it’s a violent man’s story.
Why celebrate women, after all, when you can celebrate a man? Why give women a space, a history, a voice, when instead you can celebrate the man who kills us?