What You Need To Know: Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square

When jogging through Parliament Square on International Women’s Day in 2016, Caroline Criado Perez noticed something striking about the square’s range of statues depicting historical figures: they were all male. 

Herein lay the catalyst for a two-year-strong campaign: affronted by this poor representation of history’s most notable people, Criado Perez set up an online petition which garnered 85,000 signatures. With the support of London Mayor Sadiq Khan, Criado Perez’s efforts have paid off: this week, we saw the erection (if only there were a less gendered statue-related verb…) of a bronze Millicent Fawcett crafted by artist Gillian Wearing.

So who is Millicent Fawcett?

Leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (also known as the suffragists), Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett dedicated her life to the campaign for women’s suffrage – that is, earning women the right to vote. If you can cast your mind back to sleepy GSCE history lessons, you might remember how this group preceded the notorious suffragettes, using peaceful methods of protest in the late 19th and early 20th-century such as petitions, lobbying MPs and non-violent demos. Fun fact: Fawcett’s older sister, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, was Britain’s first female doctor – so I’d be hella proud if I were their parents.

And who’s Caroline Criado Perez? 

A quick Google tells me that a) I should have known the answer to this already and b) she’s really cool. Criado Perez is a feminist activist who led the campaign for a woman to feature on a UK banknote after philanthropist Elizabeth Fry was bumped off the fiver in favour of Britain’s controversial WW2 leader Winston Churchill (notably, there’s also a statue of Mr C in Parliament Square. Bit greedy if you ask me). The Bank of England saw the white man reign supreme once more, until Criado Perez’s campaign came up trumps and they decided to put Jane Austen on the £10 note. Nice. 

What isn’t so nice is the backlash of misogynistic online abuse that Criado Perez fell victim to during the banknote campaign; so much that it almost deterred her from starting up the statue petition. But since no one took the hint when she tweeted her frustration about the statues, Criado Perez went ahead with the campaign in spite of an onslaught of daily rape threats. The tragic takeaway from this (in case we need reminding) must surely be that misogyny is still alive and kicking.

Why does Fawcett deserve a place in Parliament Square?

Aside from sharing the same forename as yours truly (thanks Mum), Fawcett’s achievements are pretty impressive. In a society where men’s voices were the only ones that had a chance to shape political society, she strove to change the status quo – supporting causes such as curbing child abuse and repealing the Contagious Diseases Act (which would see prostitutes imprisoned for spreading STDs) as well as writing a textbook on political economy. Alongside her tireless campaigning work, she also co-founded Newnham College in 1871, a women-only constituent college of the University of Cambridge.

The statue’s placement in Parliament Square is timely, since 2018 marks a century since some women were granted the right to vote. For those who might think that suffragettes Emmeline Pankhurst or Emily Wilding Davison might be a more worthy inspiration for the statue, some historians would argue that the suffragists made a more significant impact on the campaign for suffrage. In 1913, the suffragists had 25 times as many members than the suffragettes, and prior to the First World War they had already made significant breakthroughs in terms of passing women’s suffrage bills in parliament.

Why the hell has it taken this long to have a female statue standing amongst 11 bronze penises? 

See: Patriarchy. Despite the fact that history is embedded with COUNTLESS memorable women, modern society (comprising, let’s face it, many male decision-makers) still refuses to acknowledge their incredible contributions. Astonishingly, this is also the first statue in Parliament Square to have been created by a female artist, Gillian Wearing – so its significance is twofold. Yes, I’m also shaking my head in despair.

Is it too little, too late?

I mean, it seems pretty absurd that it’s taken this long to even attempt to mark gender diversity in one of London’s tourist hotspots, so I’m just as disappointed as you are. At the same time, this is definitely a step in the right direction. The fact that Criado Perez has now seen the success of two campaigns centred around female representation is encouraging, and a definite marker of progression. 

Although the ratio of male to female MPs in Parliament is still 2:1 (meaning just a third of MPs in the House of Commons are women), the 50:50 Parliament campaign seeks to rectify this by – you’ve guessed it – aiming to get more women standing for seats in parliament. In just February this year, frontbenchers were united by wearing 50:50 badges in support of the campaign – whatever the colour of the party flag they were flying. From Fawcett’s suffrage work to Jo Cox’s tireless and unforgettable promotion of equality across gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity, women have demonstrated the necessity of their voices in political spaces. Here’s to hoping that for balanced gender representation in the UK and beyond (and indeed, the number of female seats in parliament), the only way is up.