Standing in the square just northwest of the Parliament of Westminster are eleven statues of men. Among those honoured in bronze include pioneers of democracy such as Mahatma Gandhi and human rights revolutionary Nelson Mandela. These men symbolise histories of racial and political struggle, philosophy and innovation and serve as a reminder of the importance of equality and the democratic process. Yet there are no women standing at Parliament Square.
However, this will change next year as £5m of funding from the government will see a statue of Suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett, founder of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), stand alongside Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln. It may be overdue, but the statue, which will mark the centenary of women’s enfranchisement next year, is still a cause for celebration.
The campaign was led by feminist activist and writer Caroline Criado-Perez (who successfully fought for The Bank of England to put Jane Austen on the £5 note). Mounting the support of high profile figures, including Emma Watson, Naomi Harris and J.K. Rowling, the campaign gained the attention and support of London Mayer Sadiq Khan after an open letter last year.
Criado-Perez did not originally specify who the statue should be, simply stating that the women who campaigned for the vote deserved recognition. Following the announcement, Criado-Perez took to Twitter to applaud the choice of Fawcett stating she was “delighted” with the response from No10 and was “looking forward to working together to make this brilliant statue of a brilliant woman”.
— Caroline CriadoPerez (@CCriadoPerez) April 2, 2017
Fawcett is the perfect candidate for a statue. Born in 1847, she began her campaign for women’s rights at age 19 and became president of the NUWSS in 1897. The NUWSS distanced themselves from the Suffragettes associated with the Pankhurst family and their work with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) who took more militant, violent tactics towards furthering the cause for enfranchisement. Instead, the NUWSS branded themselves as “law-abiding suffragists” who would use free-speech and the strengthening of membership to gain public support. Fawcett remained president of the NUWSS until 1919, one year after the first British women were granted the vote. She was awarded an LLD from the University of St Andrews in 1899 and damehood in 1925 before her death in 1929.
Speaking about the announcement, Prime Minister Theresa May said: “It is right and proper that she is honoured in Parliament Square alongside former leaders who changed our country. Her statue will stand as a reminder of how politics only has value if it works for everyone in society.”
It is over 150 years since Fawcett began her fight for equality and her legacy is still inspiring feminist action across the country. The Fawcett Society, named in her honour in 1953, campaigns on gender issues varying from online harassment to the effect of public sector cuts on women’s lives.
Chief executive of the Fawcett Society, Sam Smethers said: “We are delighted that Millicent Fawcett, the woman who led the constitutional campaign for votes for women, will finally be honoured.
“A statue of her in Parliament Square will be a fitting tribute. Her contribution was great but she has been overlooked and unrecognised until now. By honouring her we also honour the wider suffrage movement. The Fawcett Society will be using the centenary next year to tell that story in all its diversity.”
This is not the first commemoration of women’s rights campaigners in Westminster. Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst stand in the Victoria Tower Gardens of parliament and the late Tony Benn famously placed a plaque to honour suffragette Emily Davison in a House of Commons broom cupboard. However, activists believe that the significance of Parliament Square and the domination of male figures who are honoured there means that the recognition of women’s achievements within one of London’s main tourist attractions is overdue.
From anti-austerity rallies to marches against Brexit, Parliament Square is also a place for protest. It is fitting that a location used throughout history to voice political opposition and hold decision makers to account gains the presence of a woman who strengthened democratic participation for half the population.
— Sadiq Khan (@SadiqKhan) April 2, 2017
Originally written for the Caledonian Times