We spoke to Mayor Sadiq Khan and artist Gillian Wearing about why it’s so important to have a statue of a woman in Parliament Square.
At a time when there are more statues called John than there are statues of non-fictional, non-royal women in the UK (John: 43, women: 25), Tuesday 24 April is a day to remember. That’s when Parliament Square gains its first female statue. It depicts Millicent Garrett Fawcett, leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in the fight to gain the vote for women in 1918.
And we have journalist and activist Caroline Criado-Perez to thank. Visiting Parliament Square on International Woman’s Day 2016, she noticed a huge omission. Of the 11 statues, not one was a woman. Research showed her that the dearth of female effigies was nationwide – only 2.7% of the UK’s statues are of women. Criado-Perez set up a petition for a woman’s statue to grace the square that same day. By the time her open letter to Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, was published that May, it had 85,000 signatures.
Designed by Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing, the statue deliberately depicts Garrett Fawcett at around 50, the same age as her male counterparts.
“Making it was very complex,” Wearing tells Stylist. “Many different techniques were used, such as 3D printing [and] photographic machine etching. I wanted something owned by Millicent in the sculpture [so] settled on a brooch she was given from the NUWSS. It was scanned and printed so it’s an exact replica of the original.”
Garrett Fawcett – who holds a banner reading “Courage calls to courage everywhere” (a quote from a speech she gave after the death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison at the Epsom Derby) – takes her place between fellow agitators for change, Nelson Mandela and Mahathma Gandhi. Mayor Khan is clear that the statue is only the start.
“I’m not going to pretend the statue of Ms Fawcett will mean we get rid of the pay gap or discrimination,” he tells Stylist. “But statues serve a purpose.
“I imagine how it must feel as a woman, walking around the most progressive city in the world and not seeing any examples of great women and the impact it has subconsciously. I want [more statues] celebrating women like Barbara Carson or Doreen Lawrence, who’s changed the course of history. Agatha Christie is known around the whole world so why isn’t she celebrated more in her own country? And they can’t be hidden away.”
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.
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.
Words: Moya Lothian-McLean and Moya Crockett. Images: Getty Images / Rex Features / iStock