Mary Ann Nichols
Mary Jane Kelly
It's understandable if you did not recognise these names. The names of Nichols, Chapman, Stride, Eddowes and Kelly very rarely appear in media coverage of the perpetrator known as 'Jack the Ripper'. For 125 years, the name of their killer has been celebrated whilst these women were reduced to nothing more than props.
Rather, their brutal murders have become the basis of a multi-million dollar entertainment industry. There are films, walking and bus tours, as well as no end of merchandise to immortalise and glamorise a violent perpetrator who deliberately targeted vulnerable women.
There are also thousands of websites dedicated to Jack the Ripper. The term 'swansong' appears on more than one in reference to the murder of Kelly, as though her murder was comparable to a professional footballers' last game or an opera singers' last concert. Other websites gleefully minimise the murder of these women as entertainment because the women were prostitutes and violence perpetrated against prostitutes doesn't count. The fact that not all of the women were prostitutes and those that were did so because they had no choice - safe jobs for working class women were scarce in Victorian London - is irrelevant. We define these women as prostitutes in order to blame them for being murdered.
The newest addition to this industry is the 'Jack the Ripper" museum which was to open on Cable Street in the East End of London this week. Planning permission for the museum claimed it was meant to be the history of all the women in the East End of London - a celebration of the suffragettes, the Matchstick girls, migrant women, and anti-fascist activism. Instead, the museum is advertising the inclusion of the graphic crime scene photos of the bodies of Nichols, Chapman, Stride, Eddowes, and Kelly, as though we need to see these to realise these women were killed.
A protest on Tuesday August 4th meant the museum did not have its grand opening so we don't know the exact state of other parts of the exhibits but we're going out on a limb to assume that it won't include a detailed history of each woman. After all, their merchandise includes a glass with an image of the perpetrator and the torture and murder of five women reduced to nothing more than a splash of blood. Reducing women to nothing more than a prop in their own murders doesn't reek of respect for women.
The woman who took to the streets on Tuesday and Wednesday in protest deserve our thanks but we also need to go further than this. We need to stop consuming sexual violence as entertainment. We need to stop watching the films and TV series that include graphic depictions of sexual violence to titillate the audience. We need to stop buying books and taking walking tours - not just of the perpetrator known as 'Jack the Ripper' - but of all violent perpetrators. We need to take responsibility for consuming the rape culture these forms of "entertainment" perpetuate.
We also need to name the victims. Considering the media coverage Jack the Ripper receives, we should all know the names of Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly. Remembering only the name or pseudonym of the perpetrator erases the lives of their victims. These women were not props and we need to stop treating them as such.
The story of Jack the Ripper is the history of Victorian London and the poverty, racism, classism, colonialism and misogyny that resulted in the murders of not only Nichols, Chapman, Stride, Eddowes, and Kelly but in the brutal murders, rapes and assaults of countless unnamed women. It is the story of women and girls being held accountable for the violence they experienced from fathers, brothers, uncles, neighbours, and, for a number of women in Victorian England, the men who paid for sexual access to their bodies.
These women were vulnerable because they lived in a culture which saw violence against women and girls as normal. Not much has changed in the past 125 years.
If we want to end violence against women and girls, we need to start with ending the consumption of it as entertainment. We need to stop financially supporting an industry based on the construction of women as props in order recognise that women are people too.