Parliament Square in Westminster – that big patch of grass just outside Big Ben – is usually populated by tourists, protestors and assorted members of the Metropolitan Police Force. It’s also home to 11 statues of towering figures in political history, from a grumpy-looking Winston Churchill to a mid-speech Nelson Mandela and a pensive Mahatma Gandhi.
Rather incredibly, given that the year is 2017, any statues of women are conspicuous in their absence. That’s all about to change, however, with the introduction of a permanent tribute to a leading figure in the women’s suffrage movement.
English suffragist Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett is to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, Prime Minister Theresa May announced on Sunday (2 April).
May said that Fawcett “continues to inspire the battle against the injustices of today”, the BBC reports.
“It is right and proper that she is honoured in Parliament Square alongside former leaders who changed our country,” May continued. “Her statue will stand as a reminder of how politics only has value if it works for everyone in society.”
Sam Smethers, chief executive of women’s rights charity The Fawcett Society (which was inspired by Fawcett’s work), said: “Her contribution was great, but she has been overlooked and unrecognised until now.
“By honouring her, we also honour the wider suffrage movement.”
The decision to commemorate an early women’s rights activist with a statue outside Parliament was made following a campaign launched by writer and feminist activist Caroline Criado-Perez.
In a letter to Sadiq Khan last year, Criado-Perez called on the London Mayor to keep his promise to be a “proud feminist” and honour the historical contribution of women to British politics. The letter was countersigned by high-profile women including Emma Watson, JK Rowling and Nimko Ali. A concurrent petition was backed by over 74,000 people.
Writing on Twitter, Criado-Perez said that while her campaign to see a suffragist recognised in Parliament Square lasted 12 months, Millicent Fawcett’s activism “lasted her whole life.”
Citing the politicians Selina Cooper and Julia Scurr, Criado-Perez added: “There are so many other amazing women who fought for our right to vote & who I plan to draw attention to as part of this celebration… Their names deserve to be known, for their own sakes, but also for ours. We deserve to be inspired by them.”
Who was Millicent Garrett Fawcett?
Born in Aldeburgh, Suffolk in 1847, Fawcett founded the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in 1897. A political and union leader known for her clear speaking voice sharp intellect, Fawcett considered herself a moderate suffragist rather than one of the more militant suffragettes.
Famous suffragettes of the time included Emmeline Pankhurst, who advocated tactics including smashing windows and assaulting police officers, and Emily Davison, who threw herself in front of King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913. Fawcett distanced herself from these activities, believing that violence and disruption could prove counterproductive and actually turn politicians and the public against the idea of granting women the vote.
She was leader of the NUWSS until 1919, a year after property-owning women over the age of 30 gained voting rights.
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A prolific campaigner, Fawcett dedicated herself to several other feminist causes aside from women’s suffrage over the course of her life, including curbing child abuse by raising the age of consent and preventing child marriage.
She was instrumental in pushing for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act, which stated that sex workers who passed on sexually transmitted diseases to their clients could be imprisoned, while infectious male customers were not subject to any legal ramifications. Fawcett considered this emblematic of the sexual double standards imposed on women, and the act was eventually repealed as a result of her and others’ campaigning.
Fawcett died in 1929, a year after all women in Britain were granted the right to vote.
Images: Rex Features / iStock