On the 23rd of April, an historic event took place in Parliament Square, Westminster. The government unveiled the first statue of a woman they have ever allowed to grace this hallowed ground.
The statue is of Millicent Fawcett, a prominent 19th century suffragist whose tireless work and founding of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1897 contributed to women being granted the vote 20 years later.
However, Fawcett is just one very small and very forgettable figure in the history of women’s liberation in the UK. Across the 19th and 20th centuries in Britain, women of all ethnicities, social classes, and backgrounds have been involved in the women’s liberation movement and a fair proportion of them made a far greater contribution than Fawcett.
I personally believe that by choosing Millicent Fawcett over other women who campaigned tirelessly over the past two centuries for the women’s liberation in the UK, the government and society are are quietly rewriting the history of the women’s liberation movement in the UK.
To explain what I mean, here’s a quick history lesson.
So the suffragists and the suffragettes both campaigned for the same thing, but did so very differently. The suffragists believed in getting women the vote through peaceful protest such as petitions to MPs and educating people with pamphlets and lectures. Polite, inoffensive, and middle class. All very change dot org esque.
The suffragettes, however, lived by the motto “deeds not words.” They believed in catching the public’s attention with more violent and active protests. In 1914, Emmeline Pankhurst and her comrades chained themselves to the railings outside Buckingham Palace. In 1913, Emily Wilding Davison threw herself in front of the King’s horse at the Derby.
You’ve probably heard of at least one of the events or women that I just mentioned, which shows that the suffragettes are more prominent in the public memory of women’s liberation in the UK than the suffragists.
There’s also so much more to the history of women’s liberation in Britain than the campaign for women’s suffrage. As you’ve probably noticed, based on the fact that the guy on the desk opposite you is statistically getting paid more to do the same job (and likely needed fewer qualifications to get it than you too), things weren’t suddenly perfect for women after we got the vote in 1918.
Since 1918, women from all ethnicities and all sorts of backgrounds have campaigned for women’s liberation in the UK. In 1967, Margaret Busby became the first black female publisher and since then has campaigned strongly for greater racial and gender diversity in publishing.
In the 1970’s, Olive Morris founded the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent to fight for the rights of Black and Asian women in south London and Manchester. In 1976, Mairead Maguire was awarded the Nobel Peace prize for founding the “Women for Peace” group that peacefully protested for a resolution to the troubles in Northern Ireland.
In the last couple of years Munro Bergdorf has campaigned relentlessly for the rights of women of colour, particularly trans women of colour.
Yet none of these gals got a statue in Parliament Square? By giving a statue to a prominent suffragist rather than a prominent suffragette, or a female political activist that made a larger contribution to women’s liberation in the UK, the government are effectively erasing a massive part of the history of women’s liberation in this country.
Why does it matter that history is being erased like this? Its all in the past, can’t we forget about it?
No! The problem is that society bases its identity and values on the past. By emphasising particular narratives over others, the government and society can isolate particular groups and take away our power.
If women of all ethnicities and backgrounds are not represented in history, we will continue to feel marginalised and powerless, and society as a whole will continue to treat us that way.
In short – if little black or trans girls and their class mates are taught history in school and are never taught about all these wonderful women who have fought for their rights in the past, they are never going to have the encouragement to stand up and fight for their rights in the future.
Rather than being a cause for celebration and a sign of how far we have come, I believe that the Millicent Fawcett statue is really just a grim reminder of how far we have to go.