‘You can’t be what you can’t see’

One of the pleasures of the holiday season is that I get a bit more time than usual to read the paper and there was one headline I read in the last couple of weeks that really stopped me in my tracks and made me look again to check I hadn’t made a mistake.

I hadn’t. What the headline said was ‘Statue campaign may put women on par with animals’… I could feel my outrage building, you’ll probably not be surprised to hear, and obviously I had to read more – what on earth could this mean?

Well, actually what the paper was reporting on was the campaign currently underway in Scotland, and more specifically Edinburgh, to get a statue put up in honour of one of the distinguished women who have come from that city over the years – perhaps Muriel Spark or JK Rowling for instance, or Katherine Grainger. What was the reason for the headline, though? Why might women now be moving on to a par with animals? Well, it turns out that, although there are currently two statues of animals in Edinburgh (the famous Greyfriar’s Bobby, the dog that refused to leave its master’s graveside I already knew about; I didn’t know about Wojtek, the beer-drinking Polish bear from Edinburgh Zoo, though), you’ve guessed it – there is only one statue of a woman (which is of the social activist Helen Crummy). So, with this proposed new statue, women will be ‘moving on to a par’ with animals in that sense. Seems like a pretty remarkable statistic, doesn’t it? And I have to hand it to the headline writers – they really grabbed my attention.

Then, just a few days later, I came across another piece that reminded me again of what I had read. This time the news was that, for the first time ever, as a result of Caroline Criado-Perez’s petition last year, there is to be a statue of a woman in Parliament Square in London. (I don’t think there are any animals in Parliament Square so we’re ahead of the game on that one…) So, alongside Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and others we are to have a likeness of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, by the Brit-Art sculptor Gillian Wearing. This all sounds good – a distinguished British woman artist commissioned to produce the first statue of a woman for this important national space – and it is. It’s just a shame that when we look into the story of the person who will be in the statue, Millicent Fawcett, we find that there is controversy there: she was a ‘suffragist’ rather than a ‘suffragette’ back in the early 20th century and seems to have rather looked down her nose at the idea that every woman should have the vote. She was at the very least content to allow gradual change in terms of voting rights, which would have privileged the middle and upper classes over the working class, and once described the suffragettes as ‘disgusting masses of people’. All in all, it really seems that it shouldn’t have been too difficult to come up with a less questionable choice for this historic development. While this might be interesting in itself, I’m sure many of you are asking yourselves why this really matters. You might be thinking, for instance, that you don’t even notice most of the statues you whizz past when you’re rushing around London.

Well, I think it does matter. There is a great quotation from the US activist for children’s rights, Marian Wright Edelman, who said ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’ and I think that’s where the importance of the statue issue lies. Women and girls should not be fighting it out with beer-drinking bears for which is the more likely to be thought worthy of being commemorated. Until it is just as normal for a woman to be celebrated by a statue as a man, it is so much less likely that women will aim to be the kind of person that society feels it should commemorate. Of course there are exceptions – women who have achieved great things against all the odds, and statues are not the answer to the historical social issues that have given rise to the situation where there are more statues of animals than women in Edinburgh at the start of the 21st century. But they are a very telling indicator of how far we’ve come towards fixing those historical issues – and that’s why we must continue to fight for change and not rest on what our predecessors achieved.

Image: (Neil Emmerson / Robert Harding World Imagery / Universal Images Group)