“Courage calls to courage everywhere,” reads the sign held by the statue depicting suffragist Millicent Fawcett unveiled yesterday. This is the first statue both of a woman and by a woman to join the ranks of the eleven men already commemorated in London’s Parliament Square—a momentous step that’s simultaneously revealing the progress made and that lacking in 2018. Three-time Prime Minister Edward Smith-Stanley was the first to get a statue here in July 1874, and since then various statues of past prime ministers have been added until Abraham Lincoln was commemorated in 1920. Since the turn of our century, Nelson Mandela got a statue in 2007 and Gandhi in 2015. And now, 144 years after that first hunk of bronze was erected, a woman has finally been recognized in the same way.
British journalist and activist Caroline Criado Perez has been working since May 2017 to bring a statue of a woman to the steps of Parliament. Her online campaign resulted in over 85,000 signatures, and earlier this year the government announced that the sought-after monument would be funded as part of 14-18 NOW, the UK’s cultural program marking the centenary of the World War I. Unveiled as as a celebration of the centenary of women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom brought by the passage of The Representation of the People Act 1918 (which preceded the end of WWI by nine months), the statue was commissioned from Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing. Although it should be noted, the 1918 act did give 8.4 million women and 5.6 million men the right to vote, but only extended the franchise to men over 21 and women over 30 who held 5 pounds worth of property (or had husbands who did).
Because she was the one who launched the campaign, Perez was able to select which woman was commemorated, and she selected Millicent Fawcett because of Fawcett’s pivotal role in making progress wrought by that 1918 act possible. “She did a lot of work behind the scenes, meeting Members of Parliament, trying to negotiate,” the artist, Wearing, told The Art Newspaper. “She spent six decades of her life doing this, from getting signatures for the first petition in 1866 to becoming president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.”
At the statue’s unveiling, London’s mayor Sadiq Khan told the crowd: “As a proud feminist at City Hall, I have given Caroline’s inspired campaign my full support and am delighted that we have been given the go-ahead to bring the first ever statue of a woman to the centre of British democracy in Parliament Square—something which is long overdue.”
But this statue is feminist in more ways than one. The plinth on which Fawcett stands is wrapped in a small mosaic frieze of images depicting 59 other women and men who fought for suffrage. And, Fawcett is depicted in middle age—a deliberate choice the artist made in collaboration with Perez, to align in intent with the other statues in the Square who were represented during important moments in their lives, all from middle to old age. The statue of Winston Churchill erected in the ‘70s was critiqued for showing him as a frail old man. “What is important is the achievements of Fawcett and the moment she was at her most influential,” said Wearing, “which was when she became president of the NUWSS in 1907 at 60 years old…”
“Courage calls to courage everywhere.”
The statue’s sign originates in the past work of its artist, Gillian Wearing. More known for her video and photography work than for sculpture or monuments, Wearing is uniquely and intimately familiar with the feelings of the British public. In her series Signs (1992-1993), the artist approached some 600 members of the public and asked them to write what they were thinking about on a sheet of paper before taking their photograph. The quote selected for Millicent Fawcett’s statue comes from a speech she gave after the death of fellow campaigner Emily Wilding Davison at the 1913 Epsom Derby.