Hundreds of people, including Prime Minister Theresa May, attended the unveiling of the first statue of a female figure in London’s Parliament Square. It depicts Millicent Fawcett, who led campaigning for women’s right to vote.
LONDON — After 11 statues of men — mostly white, middle-aged and of aristocratic pedigree — and nearly 200 years, the first female figure was unveiled Tuesday in London’s Parliament Square, the locus of the British establishment.
Hundreds of people, including Prime Minister Theresa May, attended the unveiling of the statue, which depicts Millicent Fawcett, a relatively unsung hero of the feminist movement who led campaigning for women’s right to vote. The bronze statue, which shows a middle-aged Fawcett holding a banner reading “Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere,” was installed, in part, to celebrate the centenary of women’s suffrage in Britain this year.
“When you think of the great people in Parliament Square, and when you realize that not one of them is a woman, it sort of begs the question,” said the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, whose office agreed to the installation this past year after an online petition for such a statue received tens of thousands of signatures. “Are we saying there haven’t been incredible women in the past? That our country hasn’t been built on the back of great women?”
The petition was started by Caroline Criado-Perez, a freelance writer who previously successfully campaigned for an image of Jane Austen to appear on the British 10-pound note. Gillian Wearing, a Turner Prize-winning artist, created the Fawcett statue, becoming the first woman responsible for a statue in Parliament Square.
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With her hair swept back in a bun and cloaked in an unassuming coat, Fawcett contrasted with some of her male counterparts on the square, past prime ministers such as Benjamin Disraeli and David Lloyd George, who are presented with outstretched hands or flowing robes. The square also features the hunching figure of Winston Churchill, in addition to those of Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Its first statue, of George Canning, another prime minister, was unveiled in 1832.
Criado-Perez said it was important for Fawcett to be depicted at 50, when she became the leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, the main suffragist organization in Britain and a largely peaceful movement, unlike the more militant suffragettes.
“I wanted her to be standing there not at all sexualized, but statesmanlike,” Criado-Perez said.
Women celebrated the Fawcett statue, but they questioned how much of a change it represented.
“In a sea of men, it’s one woman standing for all of us,” said Electra Bove, a travel agent, leading a gaggle of Italian high-school students around the square. “This is just a gesture with no real meaning; it’s more a token. Still, it’s nice.”
Born in 1847, Fawcett helped found Newnham College, the second college at Cambridge University to admit women. She also supported other causes like the abolition of the slave trade, and she led an investigation into British concentration camps in South Africa during the Boer War, camps in which tens of thousands of Afrikaners and black South Africans starved to death.
She died in 1929, a year after women in Britain were given the vote on equal terms to men.