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Photos by Ruth Corney

What Women Believe is a new art installation, commissioned by 3FF and created by artists Tessa Brown, Ruth Corney and OOMK, celebrating the lives and often untold stories of influential women from different communities.

Below are excerpts from just some of the incredible stories featured in the What Women Believe exhibition at JW3 from 5 March and Rich Mix.


Selma James

Selma James (Photo: Ruth Corney)

Selma James – Author, grassroots organiser, activist

“I think people are very close to understanding everything. We’re close to it. And when it happens, and it can happen at any time, it is going to be explosive.”

“I was born Selma Deitch but go by my husband CLR James’ name. I was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1930 in a Jewish immigrant neighborhood, which meant I understood about immigration. When I was 4 or 5 we moved to a neighborhood where ‘white’ avenue and ‘black’ street met, and we had a white address. I learnt a lot about racism as a result of living there. There was still a Jewish enclave there, much more political, although saying that, everybody in the ‘30s was political.” …

“I never thought it was a historical moment until I was 15. On the day of my birthday they announced that the atom bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I didn’t know what it meant but I knew the world was transformed by it. I thought, I have to be involved in politics, and joined a Trotskyist youth group. There was this guy, Johnson, who definitely believed there would be an American revolution and then there were all these other stodgy people who didn’t think there would be one. A revolution was what I had come for, so I was with him, and so I was in the minority very soon. We became part of what was called the Johnson-Forest Tendency, along with Grace Lee Boggs. We didn’t think we had to lead the masses or that we were leaders or anything; we were builders at the grassroots, and what we meant by the grassroots was working class people, black people and women.” …

“I moved to England in 1955. I was absolutely delighted by the NHS, and when the Tories came knocking we’d say, “No thank you, we’re all Socialists here”. That was a great thrill to say that under McCarthyism. I’ve been in London ever since except for six months in Spain and four and half years in the West Indies.”


Beryl Rhoden

Beryl Rhoden (Photo: Ruth Corney)

Beryl Rhoden – Nurse, great grandmother, gardener

“Whatever you want, you gotta fight for it – you don’t have to use fists, but use your brain.”

“Well I grew up in Jamaica, I came here 1962. I wasn’t that badly off, as much as it was a poor country. My elder sister came before me and we couldn’t bear to let her go away and don’t know what is happening to her. And that’s why I followed her. I lived in north London for a couple of years and then I moved down to east London. Which was a challenge, a real challenge. It was a challenge, but it was an opportunity, to taste the world and what goes on around it.

There weren’t no black people around, so they were the only black children in the school. They were Jewish, white, you know but no Indian, nothing around here. When they come there, there were no black people to talk with, twas a very lonely place. The only place I went for refuge was my church. And there still weren’t no black people in the church. But after a couple of month another family came. But I stayed on, and they all grew up in the church, girls’ brigade, boys’ brigade, and things does change, they change for the better.” …

“I’m a Christian, and that’s where you got your strength from, that’s where your strength comes from. Just believe there is somebody there, unseen, helping you and you hold onto that. And you get there you get there. And I sit here with my awful legs, and I still support my church, my minister still come here to give me communion and all my church members can come to see me here. And we’re a family now, there’s so much family now you know, the church is my family.

I have always like to care for people. They always call me the singing nurse. If they were dying I was there singing for them. You enjoyed it. I do miss it when I had to retire but my time has come to give up. Even now I’m old I joined about three different clubs. I’m always around, I can’t sit down.”


Nabila Elahi (Photo: Ruth Corney)

Nabila Elahi (Photo: Ruth Corney)

Nabila Elahi – Civil engineer, maths teacher, activist

“Who are we not to be humble? We are all just specks in a big universe.”

“I have what I think is an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and even before I finished school I knew I wanted to be a teacher. My father, a history teacher, had studied at the American University of Beirut and transferred his critical outlook to us. Both my parents had studied in missionary schools growing up and were fluent in French. They were open to many worlds, and this affected my five brothers and I as children. I would read French, Russian and American literature that had been translated into Arabic while I was still young. On my very first visit to the public library aged eight, my father dropped me off and left saying, “I’ll come back in two or three hours!” We were not as rich as our relatives, but I don’t think they had as many opportunities as I did to learn.” …

“By the time I left Syria at the age of twenty-six however, I felt I was living under almost complete surveillance. I don’t like to think about that time. Our neighbors would watch us from behind the curtain, recording who came in and out of the family home. … Tyranny and dictatorship changes human nature irrevocably. It teaches you to be a hypocrite, because you never can speak your mind, to be suspicious of other people. You can rebuild a damaged house, but when you damage the fabric of society, which is built on trust and honesty, it is a lot harder to heal.” …

“One thing I have learnt is that no matter whether you believe or not, goodness is probably nothing to do with religion. You can find very good people wherever you are. People say if you have two or three close friends that you are lucky but I can easily count twenty to thirty good people I call friend all of whom enrich my life and who are exceptional human beings. I consider myself extremely blessed.”


Jane Mortimer (Photo: Ruth Corney)

Jane Mortimer (Photo: Ruth Corney)

Jane Mortimer – Teacher, minister, volunteer

“When you believe from the heart that it’s something you’re meant to do, you just get out and do it, even if you are pretty scared. People will always forgive someone who tries.”

“The farms I grew up on as a child were a long way from the village without a car and there was no time to take us to church except for special occasions. It wasn’t until we moved to Surrey and the church was at the center of the community that it became part of my life. Around the age of 28 I decided to go to theological college and take a course to become a minister through the United Reform Church. Since being ordained I’ve alternated between working as a teacher for some years and working as a minister during others.” …

“Becoming a woman minister wasn’t widely acceptable until the Church of England took a position on it almost twenty years ago. I had been ordained quite a chunk of time before that and in my first church three people voted against my going because I was a woman. Initially, the vicar refused to talk to me, but by the time I left five years later we were very good friends! People have a fear of the unknown. I’ve always taken the attitude that if you just get on with it and show them man or woman, you’re getting the job done then you’ll get results.” …

“As a minister I felt very strongly about being aware of the needs of the wider community and fulfilling them in some way, whether it was organizing food banks or structuring recreational activities for teens with disabilities. Serving a community is showing them God’s love, which to me is what it’s all about. In Chelmsford, the most recent area before I retired, I had four churches, and one in quite a deprived area expressed a need for a community café. It took a lot of planning, teamwork and effort to sort out all the fundraising, surveys, construction, and furniture and so on but it was a particularly rewarding experience.” …

“Being a minister is an enormous privilege, because people are letting you into their lives. Ultimately you have to be very careful, to be honest with yourself and to respect peoples boundaries. It means to be a servant, a servant of God and servant to the people. There’s no need to put them on pedestals. Keep us on the ground, that’s where we are.”