In our era of easy outrage, the first statue of a woman in Parliament Square is a timely celebration of unwavering belief
Gillian Wearing’s monument to the British suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett – the first statue of a woman to be erected on Parliament Square in London, and also the first to be designed by a female artist – marks a century since the partial suffrage granted women by the 1918 Representation of the People Act. (The Act was also the first to include all men over 21 in the political system, effectively granting returning servicemen of all ranks the vote.)
As leader of the non-militant National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, one of Fawcett’s most effective tactics was a series of colourful and well-organized women’s marches starting with the ‘Mud March’ of 1907 and culminating in the nationwide Great Pilgrimage of 1913 which drew a gathering some 50,000 strong in London’s Hyde Park. Wearing’s statue of Fawcett arrives two years into a new global tradition of Women’s Marches – these marked by the pink of the pussy hat rather then the berry red, leaf green and white of the suffragists. The timing feels unpleasantly apt.
Even today, less than 10 per cent of the 800-odd statues recorded by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association are of named women – and most of those are idealized mythological or allegorical figures. Activist Caroline Criado Perez, who led the campaign to have the statue of Fawcett erected, suggested that Fawcett be presented aged 60. There is a feminist imperative to portraying a middle-aged woman, at the height of her political powers. In addressing the lack of visibility given to older women, Wearing returns to themes she engaged with in Rock n'roll 70 (2015–16), for which she invited forensic technologists to imagine older versions of herself. As a public portrayal of an awe-inspiring figure in her 60s, the statue is a more permanent, public form of redress, though one can’t help wishing that it were a little more dynamic: as it is, the figure appears stiff as an Edwardian photo portrait, untroubled by the suggestion of movement or emotion, as if contrapposto were an unnecessary frivolity, ill fitted to the gravity of the suffragist cause.
While she has used sculptural elements in the past – notably lifelike latex masks – Wearing, who won the Turner Prize in 1997, is best known for her work in film and photography. Cast in bronze, her statue of Fawcett is distinctly contemporary in its fabrication. The artist used photogrammetry to construct a three-dimensional image of an actress in a tweed walking outfit. This was 3D-printed and combined with a likeness of Fawcett’s head commissioned from an (unnamed) portrait sculptor, and scaled up casts of the artist’s own hands, holding a banner that reads ‘Courage Calls To Courage Everywhere’. Skirting the plinth are 52 etched tiles carrying the names, and in all but one instance the photographs, of 55 leading suffragists, and their more militant sister suffragettes.
While the quotation comes from Fawcett’s response to the death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, knocked down by the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913, its position on a banner echoes the peaceful mottos borne aloft by suffragist groups on their marches. ‘By Faith Not Force’ read the embroidery on one group’s banner; ‘Better is Wisdom than Weapons of War,’ another. Horticulturalist Gertrude Jekyll designed one for Godalming that carried swags of silk flowers.
Rather than raise her banner aloft, Fawcett holds ‘Courage Calls To Courage Everywhere’ before her, in echo of Wearing’s much loved series ‘Signs that Say What You Want Them To Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say’ (1992–93). For that work, members of the public were photographed, holding self-penned statements on placards – ‘I have been certified as mildly insane’, ‘signed on and they would not give me nothing’, ‘I like to be in the country’ – in more or less awkward, head-on poses echoed by that of the statue.
In using a cast of her own hands in the work, Wearing pays personal homage to Fawcett by means familiar from her ‘Mask’ series, in which the artist’s own eyes gaze out from within the latex likeness of significant figures, among them Diane Arbus, Claude Cahun, August Sander and Robert Mapplethorpe.
Theresa May’s remarks at the statue’s unveiling – ‘I would not be here today as Prime Minister […] were it not for Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett’ – made women’s suffrage sound a distinctly mixed blessing. The unpopular Prime Minister’s words will no doubt provide fodder for Westminster wits, just as, some 150 years earlier the first petition for female suffrage did. ‘Strong-minded’ women were widely caricatured as carping harridans. Opposition to the cause of women’s suffrage was strong and at times violent. Last week at the Glasgow Women’s Library, Linder presented archival objects alongside her film work Bower of Bliss (2018): among them ‘comic’ postcards depicting women as prattling, snake-tongued grotesques, strapped up in dogs’ muzzles and scold’s bridles.
Jane Robinson’s book Hearts and Minds (2018), a history of the Great Pilgrimage, describes suffragists being bombarded with rotten potatoes and eggs, maggot-riddled dead rats, stones and pieces of broken brick. The suffragists’ response was to be courteous, humorous, but unwavering in their commitment to their cause. In our era of easy outrage, Wearing’s monument to Fawcett feels a well-timed celebration of the power of rational engagement, unwavering belief and defiant visibility.
Main image: The English suffragist and educational reformer Dame Millicent Fawcett, (1847–1929), addressing a meeting in Hyde Park in 1913 as president of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, an office she held from 1897 to 1919. Courtesy: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images