London is filled with statues and plaques commemorating the achievements of the great and good, but if you went solely by the records of human achievement that are cast in bronze, it would be easy to think that white men were the only people to make any significant contributions to politics, art, science or culture.
There are rare exceptions — likenesses of Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi stand in Parliament Square alongside nine other statues, all celebrating the work of various white men. It’s notable that there isn’t a single woman amongst the statues of these historical figures, but this is set to change. In 2018, to commemorate the centenary of The Representation of the People Act which granted some women the right to vote, a new twelfth statue depicting Dame Millicent Fawcett, the president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, is to be unveiled.
“Recognising the achievements of diverse and marginalised people allows everybody to know that their potential greatness is feasible.”
This won’t just be the first statue of a woman in Parliament Square; it will also be the first that has been created and designed by a female artist. Gillian Wearing got the job after a petition calling for a statue of a woman in Parliament Square gained 85,000 signatures. This petition was part of campaign lead by Caroline Criado-Perez, who was also the impetus behind the decision to put Jane Austen on the new £10 note. Publicly acknowledging women’s work and their achievements, either by erecting statues in their honour or adorning money with their likeness, creates a possibility model. Recognising the achievements of diverse and marginalised people allows everybody to know that their potential greatness is feasible.
Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan who approved the project said: “As a proud feminist at City Hall, I have given Caroline’s inspired campaign my full support and am delighted that we have been given the go-ahead to bring the first ever statue of a woman to the centre of British democracy in Parliament Square – something which is long overdue. […] We want this statue to depict the strength and determination of the women who dedicated their lives to the fight for women’s suffrage and to inspire many generations to come and I know Gillian’s creation will do just that.”
“The people we build statues of, name buildings after and put on our money should echo and amplify the values that matter to us as a society.”
Our statues often recognise the wrong people, and who we decide to grant the privilege of becoming an effigy says a lot about what we value as a society. When statues of those who oppressed marginalised people stay standing, it says that these misdeeds can be overlooked or even rewarded. The people we build statues of, name buildings after and put on our money should echo and amplify the values that matter to us as a society.
As Tony Benn said to the House of Commons in 2001; “I have put up several plaques—quite illegally, without permission; I screwed them up myself. One was in the broom cupboard to commemorate Emily Wilding Davison, and another celebrated the people who fought for democracy and those who run the House. If one walks around this place, one sees statues of people, not one of whom believed in democracy, votes for women or anything else. We have to be sure that we are a workshop and not a museum.”
“If our monuments are supposed to be concrete representations of our values then it is vital that Dame Millicent Fawcett doesn’t spend long standing alone as the sole woman in Parliament Square.”
Tony Benn’s secret and unofficial monuments are not uncommon when it comes to tributes to the lives and achievements of marginalised people. Its only recently the these contributions are being recognised publicly. Still it’s often the case that when representing the historical achievements of women, more often than not we only represent the historical achievements of white women. Fawcett and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies were undoubtedly and unarguably pivotal in the advancement of women’s rights in the UK, but the suffrage movement has an uncomfortable and frequently glossed over history of racism.
If our monuments are supposed to be concrete representations of our values then it is vital that Dame Millicent Fawcett doesn’t spend long standing alone as the sole woman in Parliament Square. There are so many other women who have made important and significant contributions to politics and deserve the chance to take up a plinth,. One memorial to the achievements of one white woman doesn’t adequately capture the lasting influence of women on politics.