Visible Women

Sadiq Khan tells Stylist how he’s celebrating 100 years of votes for women

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Moya Crockett
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As the Mayor of London unveils a major new exhibition in London, we sat down with him to discuss his plans for 2018. 

If you go down to Trafalgar Square today, you’re in for a big surprise. The grand plaza is always thronged with tourists, posing for photos in front of Nelson’s Column, throwing coins into the fountain or pouring down the steps from the National Gallery. But on Tuesday 6 February, a new gang will temporarily take up residence between the square’s iconic bronze lions: 59 life-size cut-outs of women and men who fought for women’s right to vote.

The public exhibition is designed to raise awareness of the campaign for women’s suffrage, on the 100th anniversary of (some) women winning the vote in Britain and Ireland. Among the 59 people are familiar names, such as the famous suffragette Emily Wilding Davison and the Pankhursts, as well as lesser-known figures such as Lolita Roy, the president of the London Indian Union, and working-class mill worker Annie Kenney.

Later this year, the cut-outs will go on tour to various new venues, including the Museum of London. Each of the 59 faces will also be etched into the granite plinth of the much-anticipated statue of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, to be unveiled in Parliament Square in April.

At a roundtable meeting at London’s City Hall, Mayor of London (and self-professed “proud feminist”) Sadiq Khan tells Stylist that he is committed to shouting about women’s achievements. “The idea is to encourage men and women, old and young, to go along to Trafalgar Square [on 6 February] to have a selfie with these amazing people,” he explains.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the suffragist who will be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square

The exhibition is part of the #BehindEveryGreatCity campaign, a year-long, London-wide drive to raise awareness of women’s contributions to the capital. As well as the Fawcett statue (by Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing), there will also be an initiative to increase the number of blue plaques in London dedicated to women. Public art programme Art on the Underground has only commissioned international women artists for the duration of 2018, and there will be processions held in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast on 10 June to celebrate 100 years of votes for women. 

The people who will appear in Trafalgar Square and on the plinth of Wearing’s statue are “suffragists and suffragettes, from different socioeconomic backgrounds, different parts of the country and different ethnicities,” Khan says. It took a team of historians and experts from universities and archives around the UK a considerable amount of time to settle on which 59 people should be selected, and the Mayor readily admits that he wasn’t immediately familiar with several of the names.

This wasn’t, he stresses, because of a lack of interest, but simply because many of those who contributed to the women’s suffrage movement have been more or less erased from history. Khan is particularly intrigued by Jessie Craigen, a queer, working-class suffragist of whom no known photographs exist.

“That tells you a lot about how history captures certain characters and not others,” he observes. “We were keen to make sure working-class women were involved in this statue, because obviously we all know the famous suffragettes and suffragists who were all of a certain background, but actually working-class women were involved in the campaign as well.

“Those are the stories that we’re really interested in, because they haven’t been told.”

Sadiq Khan talking to students at Platanos College in south London about the work of Millicent Fawcett

Culture is important to Khan. He is a firm believer that it has the power to “change people’s way of feeling” – one of the reasons why, upon becoming mayor in 2016, he immediately threw his support behind Caroline Criado-Perez’s campaign to erect a statue of a woman in Parliament Square.

“The point that I feel strongly about is that if you’re a girl, a young woman, going around our city and you see all these statues of these brilliant people all the time, and they happen to be blokes all the time, what does that do to your sense of aspiration, achievement and sense of accomplishment?” he says.

“There must be a reason why there are statues of people – because statues have an impact. They celebrate great victories, of progress made, but also they have an impact on attitudes.”

The Mayor says he’d like to see his friend, the anti-racism campaigner Baroness Doreen Lawrence, celebrated with her own statue in London.

“Doreen is somebody who, because her son [Stephen Lawrence] was murdered in tragic circumstances, became a campaigner – at a time when nobody believed her that his son was treated differently because of the colour of his skin,” he says. “She campaigned for a public enquiry, which eventually led to a change in the law… She’s a modern day hero. Those of us who are different are [now] treated better, and we owe that to Doreen.”

Baroness Doreen Lawrence: next up for a statue in London? 

However, Khan acknowledges that culture isn’t powerful enough to fix the problem of gender inequality on its own: it has to go hand-in-hand with policy. He cites his own efforts to reduce the gender pay gap at City Hall by becoming the first mayor to publish a gender pay audit (the audit revealed that there is a pay gap of 5% at City Hall, prompting Khan to publish an action plan to reduce it).

He is proud of the fact that the Metropolitan Police force and the London Fire Brigade now have women leaders (“on merit,” he notes), and highlights Transport for London’s Report It to Stop It campaign to tackle sexual harassment on public transport.

“We want to look backwards and mark progress, but also use [the 2018 votes for women celebrations] as a springboard going forward as well,” he says.

You can find out more about the #BehindEveryGreatCity campaign here

Stylist is celebrating the 100th anniversary of some women getting the vote. See more of our commemorative content here.

Images: Rex Features