the story so far
The issue of the staggering inequality in numbers of civic statues of women and men has been under discussion for some years. Here we offer a snapshot of these conversations.
Who and what do we honour?
There was an upsurge in this conversation when the London memorial to women who served in World War II was erected with no women in it, only their empty uniforms hung on hooks. Despite being a poignant testament to the truth that at the end of the war their uniforms were empty either because the women had died or because they had relinquished the active roles they had played in wartime, it also served as a stark reminder that women are totally under-represented in civic statues, that women’s achievements remain largely uncelebrated and invisible.
One argument often raised to excuse gender inequality in civic statues - the invisibility of women - is that women have achieved less; won fewer wars, had not come up with so many inventions or been such notable thinkers or political leaders. And there is a truth in that, because how could all but the most exceptional women excel in those fields with the age-old hobble of patriarchy hindering them at every step?
It is an argument that also misses an essential thread of thinking, in that warriors, inventors, scholars and politicians are not the only kinds of people worthy of honouring. It misses all the other areas that women are traditionally skilled in; the work of the social and domestic fabric of our society, without which there would be no society, no family life, no real community. These are the areas that have been and remain conveniently overlooked and underpaid and contribute greatly to the continuing pay gap. How handy to be able to dismiss and devalue as ‘women’s work” the very essentials of our existence.
So, part of the discussion here will be about including these areas in the suggestions for women, groups and concepts to be celebrated in new civic statues. In this way we not only move to equality in gender representation, we also help to demonstrate the value of the other essential qualities, historically rendered invisible alongside all the invisible women.
The work of women in the world is worth its weight in gold. It is what oils the wheels and we would all be stuck without it.
What they have been saying
Even as long ago as 1952 a correspondent wrote to the Times about women being neglected in statues and memorials. The piece was entitled : “A Man’s World Even in Stone”. Sadly there does not seem to have been a great deal of progress in the intervening years.
Back in 2008 The Guardian carried an article by Germaine Greer in response to a civic statue of Diana Dors. “Britain's one undeniably monumental female sculpture is entirely recognisable as a flesh-and-blood woman... a bronze figure of Swindon's most famous daughter, the film star Diana Dors”. Greer goes on to discuss the dearth of female statues and the nature of those we do have.
“When Marc Quinn's 11.5-tonne sculpture of a pregnant Alison Lapper was unveiled in Trafalgar Square on September 15 2005, Ken Livingstone observed that her life was "a struggle over much greater difficulties than the men who are celebrated here", referring to Nelson atop his column, George IV, Sir Henry Havelock and Sir Charles Napier. The then Mayor of London was making a point about heroism, but he might as well have been making a point about gender. Monumental effigies of women are rare...”
Greer's article had responses online too, so now the debate had passed from the old media to the new but the issue was the same - women were still not being honoured for the kind of achievements that gave us the plethora of men on plinths.
In 2011 the conversation continued online, with a discussion of the astonishing absence of any actual women in the memorial to women in World War II.
Where are the public memorials to commemorate women's contributions to our past? World War II looms large in the UK's history, but you will struggle to find many sculptures representing women's role.
This was part of an interesting debate by the Bristol Paperwomen Collective and Carolyn Dougherty on the contemporary British feminist website theFword about women’s erasure from public spaces.They question the effects of women’s invisibility - “The fact that women’s bodies and names are hardly represented creates a social identity where it is okay for women to be absent.... When representations of weapons are more visible in our civic sculpture than images of women, what futures can we hope for?”
Challenging the Status Quo
In 2015 Adele Patrick founder of Glasgow Women's Library and leading feminist campaigner called for a series of memorials and sculptures commemorating Scotland's forgotten and unsung heroines to be erected around the country; for new markers in the civic landscape. In 2016 the campaign for the first of these to be honoured, Mary Barbour radical reformer, was won. But with hundreds of statues of men and just 20 statues of women across Scotland, Adele said that successful completion of a Mary Barbour statue should open the gates to a host of visible memorials to the nation's heroines, who have been obscured by history.
In 2016 Caroline Criado Perez wrote an article in the New Statesman that challenged the status quo and launched the campaign for women to be acknowledged as politically significant in Parliament Square, where the 11 existing statues were all of men.
The campaign that followed, with a petition attracting 70,000 signatures resulted in the first woman, suffragist Millicent Fawcett, joining this very prominent 'gentlemen’s club', a veritable bastion of male political power.
Using the database of the Public Monuments & Sculpture Association Caroline Criado Perez estimates that only 2.7% of civic statues in the UK are actual, historical non-royal women. She concludes that if you are a woman “ your best chance of becoming a statue is to be a mythical or allegorical figure, a famous virgin, royal or nude.” This pattern of male dominance in civic statues is replicated all over the country. In Leeds, for example, we have the Black Prince, symbol of warlike prowess, backed up by four worthy well-dressed, named gentlemen, honoured for their wordly achievements then eight nameless, naked symbolic women portraying ‘Times of Day’; dawn, midday, evening etc. Totally uninspiring and anti-aspirational for women, reduced to titillating lantern-bearers.
There are continuing campaigns for the foremother of feminism, Mary Wolstonecraft, for writers Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen, ( this time in Bath ), for politicians Barbara Castle and Margaret Thatcher, Suffragettes Mary Clarke, Amy Walmesley, and Sylvia Pankhurst, for pioneer of industrial workers rights, Sarah Chapman, founder of women's hospital Elsie Inglis, and paeleontologist Mary Anning.
So we can celebrate the statues now standing to the achievements of real women; Amy Johnson, Women of Steel, Cylla Black, Gracie Fields, Mary Seacole, Mary Barbour, Jane Austen, Alice Hawkins, Emmeline Pankhurst, Emily Wilding Davison, Steel Workers in Scunthorpe, Kitty Wilkinson, Victoria Wood, Queen Aethelflaed and Anney Kenny as well as the ground breaking memorial to suffragist Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, that bastion of male political power.
There are also statues that begin to address the wider issue of women's position in society, with inspirational representations such as Messenger in Plymouth, where the sculptor said 'To represent a woman at this scale and in public space has turned out to be a more revolutionary proposition than I had first considered it … at a moment in our history when female actors have transformed the consensus in western society, ( with the 'MeToo' movement ) about the position of women professionally and generally.”
and Fearless Girl in New York, London, Melbourne and other cities around the world, erected to inspire women to join the financial sector but also a wider inspiration in a time when we have seen a real fearless girl, Greta Thunberg, making such an immense impact on the issue of climate change speaking at the United Nations and Olga Misik's powerful peaceful protest for democracy on Russia.
Fearless Girl, New York, London, Australia
Greta Thunberg, and Olga Misik; Real Fearless Girls.
These two both show the potential for a public statue to inspire and to embody concepts of the positive potential of women. There is still a very long way to go, but these successes do give us inspiration about how to achieve many more PLINTHS FOR WOMEN!!
For more current press coverage go to getting attention.