A statue of Millicent Fawcett, a campaigner for feminist suffrage, was erected in Parliament Square this week. Is it a game-changer for feminism?
This Tuesday saw a small, dissenting drop in the vast ocean of male power in the UK as a statue of historic suffragist Millicent Fawcett was unveiled in London’s Parliament Square. Fawcett’s inclusion marks the first statue of a woman in the square, which is otherwise dominated by 11 male figures including former Prime Ministers Winston Churchill, David Lloyd George and Benjamin Disraeli.
Fawcett is depicted as a statuesque fifty-year-old woman – the age at which she was awarded a brooch from the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. She hoists a banner reading ‘Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere’, something she once wrote about suffragette Emily Wilding Davison.
We might think of another famous, feminist statue unveiled fairly recently – the ‘Fearless Girl’ in New York’s Wall Street district that debuted on International Women’s Day last year. The sculpture depicts a young girl bracing herself, hands on her hips, facing off against the Golden Bull of Wall Street. How should we understand both Fawcett’s statue and ‘Fearless Girl’ in the context of feminist struggle?
Who runs the world?
It should come as no surprise that women are underrepresented in statues around the world. Only 3% of the UK’s are of women. This imbalance reveals how historically, and presently, women’s contributions to society are minimised.
Journalists at the unveiling of Fawcett’s statue noted how the crowd was noticeably full of young women joyfully participating in the momentous occasion.
Similarly, when ‘Fearless Girl’ first made its debut on Wall Street in March 2017, it won praise of its pro-feminist message and launched major petitions for the statue – which was originally supposed to be propped up for a week – to stay permanently in place.
But behind all these public moments, it is always worth asking: who really runs the show?
‘Fearless Girl’ was commissioned by US fund management firm State Street, who reportedly voted down proposals to tackle gender inequality within their own firm at least a dozen times – in the very same year that ‘Fearless Girl’ was erected.
It was further discovered in October last year that the company had underpaid 300 of its female employees, and was forced to pay $5 million to settle a gender pay gap lawsuit out of court. All the while, ‘Fearless Girl’ remained standing, and for State Street’s own benefit – the statue reportedly gave the money management company around $13 million dollars in free PR.
If ‘Fearless Girl’ acts as a warning against taking self-proclaimed acts of ‘female empowerment’ at their word, the statue of Millicent Fawcett is surely a case of where the sentiment is genuine.
The entire trajectory of the statue – from its beginnings as a petition by feminist campaigner Caroline Criado Perez, to being made by Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing who ensured that the statue would not be sexualised or infantilised, as women so commonly are (Fearless Girl, anyone?) – is a story of women making change happen at the grassroots, for the emotional benefit of the other young women around them, and not the financial pockets of ultimately old, male, and already wealthy Wall Street hedge fund managers.
But is there is a co-option of social causes in the beginnings of Millicent Fawcett’s launch? Prime Minister Theresa May spoke at the launch:
“None of us would have the rights and protections we enjoy, were it not for one truly great woman, Millicent Fawcett.”
But Theresa May is also the leader of a Party whose economic cuts, it has been suggested, make life disproportionately more difficult for women.
Representation is undeniably important, but also begs the question – representation so we can do what? In order to fully celebrate these great women throughout history, should we not honour their legacy by continuing their principled stances against injustices of all kind in everyday life?
Feminism does not stop, after all, with the mere presentation of women in a public square. It cuts to the very heart of what makes our lives tick – to look at our world that prioritises cut-throat economic competition, which denies people basic rights if they happen to live within the ‘wrong borders’, and find the compassion and courage to work towards a better way for all of us to live!
The momentous achievements of women throughout history, made through strong and unbreakable sisterhood, should inform the spirit and courage of us all today. Fawcett’s statue stands as proof.