30 April 2018
Last week saw a pretty important cultural event take place for the UK, and in London so we got to see it first-hand. Well, one of us Cows did. Below Laura tells us of how a pretty standard Tuesday became full of pride, celebration and a few tears…
I’m known for being an engaged feminist and someone who’s always fighting the female corner in everyday life so when I heard that Caroline Criado Perez, a writer, broadcaster and award-winning feminist activist was petitioning to get a statue of a woman, and crucially, a brilliant woman who I admire, up in Parliament Square I signed it straight away and stayed on top of the campaign’s progress.
I knew she’d be successful – she’d done it before. Caroline is the woman who campaigned for the Bank of England to put a woman (other than the Queen) onto an English £10 banknote and succeeded with Jane Austen joining a whole heap of men (Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, J.W.M Turner) in September last year.
The seed for this campaign started when Perez, out on a run with her dog, went through Parliament Square and noticed that all 11 statues in the square were men. Brilliant men; men that had achieved great things of course, but all men? Surely not. It was 2016. She sent an angry tweet out and carried on her run, but lucky for us she couldn’t get those 11 men out of her head and before she’d even got to Green Park she had set up the petition on her phone and posted it out on her social media.
Two years and 85,000 signatures later, and that seed grew into one massive tree and from Tuesday, Parliament Square was no longer a male-only space. Hurrah!
So, who is the woman who 85,000 people campaigned to get seen and celebrated?
Born in 1847 in Suffolk, Millicent Fawcett dedicated her whole life to fighting for women’s right to vote. Fawcett first started petitioning for the right to vote in 1866 at the age of 19, gathering signatures from women across the country and lobbying politicians.
In 1928, she was up in the Ladies’ Gallery in the House of Lords watching the Equal Franchise Bill being passed. She died a year later in 1929 and up until now, not a single statue of her has existed. In fact, out of all the statues in the UK less than 3% of those are of women who existed and ridiculously there are more statues of men named John than there are of historic women.
The statue, created by Turner Prize winner Gillian Wearing shows a 50-year-old Fawcett holding a banner which says: “Courage calls to courage everywhere.” This is a line taken from a speech made by Fawcett after the death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, who was killed after throwing herself under King George V’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby.
The statue itself may be of one great woman but it’s not her alone who we remember with this significant monument and that feeling was felt so strongly on Tuesday. As brilliant as Fawcett was, the fight for women’s right to vote, like all human rights battles, was won not by one person alone. It was a movement, made up of hundreds, thousands, millions, of ordinary people. People from all classes, all ethnicities. And because of this, around the plinth are the names and (where they exist) pictures of 59 women (and some men) who fought for this right, too.
The ceremony on Tuesday was an emotional one with hundreds of people gathering for the unveiling. Hosted by BBC presenter Mishal Husain, the hour-long celebration featured poet Theresa Lola, performances from the cast of Sylvia and the Suffragist Singers and an adaptation of Fawcett’s 1918 victory speech.
Prime Minister Theresa May also attended and said: “I would not be here today as Prime Minister, no female MPs would have taken their seats in Parliament, none of us would have had the rights and protections we now enjoy, were it not for one truly great woman, Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett.
“For generations to come, this statue will serve not just as a reminder of Dame Millicent’s extraordinary life and legacy, but as inspiration to all of us who wish to follow in her footsteps,” she added.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan – someone who’s been prominent in making sure this statue was placed in Parliament Square and also featured as one of the 59 on the plinth for doing so, was also among the guests.
He said: “Today is an historic day. The decision to commission this statue was a no-brainer. It is vital that we fix the imbalance and make sure more women are represented in our public spaces.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself, Sadiq. It’s a bloody long time coming but an historic day indeed. And hopefully only the beginning. Statues of men named John – we’re coming for you!