Visibility of Women (or lack thereof)

‘Their heads are full of cotton hay and rags’, according to Prof Higgins.

Walk in any British city or town and see if, as you walk, there are any commemorative works of art. War memorials you will almost certainly see. Royalty you will almost certainly see. Famous men you will almost certainly see.

Then, look to see how many women are commemorated. Queen Victoria and the Virgin Mary apart, few places have statuary of real women.

The statue of Millicent Fawcett, which will shortly be sited in Parliament Square, is, therefore, highly unusual and hugely significant. Of some 925 commemorative pieces in Britain, there are only 158 to individual women (2016 figures). Among those are some 29 to the redoubtable Queen Victoria and 14 to the Virgin Mary.

There are those who argue that it doesn’t matter, that in modern times, erecting such art is masculine rather than feminine; and anyway, art in the modern world should be leaving this behind. One might argue that it is seen as masculine because so much commemorative art is to men!

The visibility of women as campaigners, social activists, scientists, engineers or as agents of change is therefore diminished. In short, women as significant persons in our society are simply not there.

One of our local Cheltenham schools – a mixed 11-16 comprehensive – did a survey of how girls feel about their place in society. The results shocked me. They felt and experienced their role just as I had in the 1970s. All the change we had campaigned for, that many of us had assumed had happened, for them did not exist.

They saw the role of women as decision makers, politicians, business leaders, engineers and scientists subsumed by the overwhelming public face of women in our media.

They had never heard of Josephine Butler, who campaigned against the Contagious Diseases Act, sexual exploitation and trafficking of children, and for girls’ education. Much of her work would resonate today, more than a century after her death.

So, something needs to change. Through education? Yes. Boys and girls need to understand how much women have contributed. Understand and appreciate.

In our own time, the impact of those such as Millicent Fawcett and Josephine Butler – a great Liberal campaigner – should be acknowledged and celebrated in a public way. So that as mums, dads and carers take their youngsters for a walk, the question on seeing a statue or commemorative piece won’t just be, ‘Who’s that man?’ but, ‘Who’s that woman?’ too.

* Flo Clucas OBE is the President of the ALDE Gender Equality Network and former President of the ALDE Group on the EU Committee of the Regions. She was a councillor in Liverpool City Council for 26 years.

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  • Ruth Bright 12th Oct '17 - 1:18pm

    What a thought provoking piece. Flo’s figures are fascinating – if you subtracted Queen Victoria and other royalty women would hardly be publicly commemorated at all. Looking at all the equestrian statues in Central London I have a nasty feeling that there are more monuments to horses than to women!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 12th Oct '17 - 2:26pm

    If charity begins at home, equality needs to go further. Public representation is very important. I do see many examples of exquisite sculptures, in the public sphere, usually of exquisite depictions of women honouring or adding to sculptures of important men! The Sir Arthur Sullivan statue with an angel or companion of some very beautiful sort, in Embankment Gardens, the Albert Ball Memorial at Nottingham Castle museum grounds, which is similarly adorned, depict women as spiritual and sensual, not passive or at all pointless, but utterly idealised.

    The Don Quixote, and Cyrano in me loves it. The modern man agrees with Flo and Ruth . I shall view and love to do so, those statues, and thoroughly and totally support more to the likes of Millicant Fawcett. The problem arises when some object to statues of Thatcher .

    I am writing a musical based on a great novel by a great writer , who was a great woman. She has few statues to her and her work is misunderstood and misinterpreted. Women who care , and are true scholars , and men likewise, are reclaiming her.I cannot reveal my sources yet , but shall, very soon, and in more than a statue, hopefully in the airwaves and theatres !

  • For those interested in suffragism, Catherine Marshall would have been a better subject than Mrs Fawcett,

  • David: why not both? Embrace the power of “and” 😉

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