An upcoming statue of Millicent Fawcett, in Londons Parliament Square, is causing a whole lot of commotion in the world of history (we do love an argument!)
The first uproar was when the press labelled Fawcett a suffragette (I also jumped in on this; never one to miss a good argument on the importance of recognising the difference between suffragette and suffragist)
Then the second uproar; did Millicent Fawcett even deserve the statue?
The incredible and very eminent historian, June Purvis, wrote an article for The Guardian titled:
A suffragist statue in Parliament Square would write Emmeline Pankhurst out of history
This article was met with a letter arguing that Purvis had it all wrong; Millicent Fawcett deserved the statue….because she was a way better suffrage leader than Emmeline Pankhurst!
It’s playground politics with PHDs
There are currently eleven statues in Parliament Square, ranging from Churchill to Nelson Mandela. They represent eleven men who made a huge historical impact…nobody is arguing which man deserves his place in the square, or in history.
Equally nobody believes that because these men have statues in this one place, that automatically writes out the work of their contemporaries; of course it doesn’t, that would make no logical sense.
Just because this one plot of land doesn’t have space, doesn’t mean history itself is full up; there’s room to celebrate all these men.
And guys….mic drop moment:
We can do this with women too!
As women we’re conditioned to pick just one; there are so few mainstream female history heroes that we don’t want our favourite to be forgotten.
We want our woman to finally receive the attention and accolades that have for so long been overlooked… if statues, exhibits and books, that we believe should focus on her achievements, start to look elsewhere, then that surely jeopardises her place in history.
This is a more than understandable view. But the more we play into it, the more we’re worsening the already dire situation that is women’s history.
In 2016 I spent one of the bleakest days of my life roaming the streets of London asking people to name just three women from history for a video.
You guys… they didn’t know any.
When asked to name 3 women from history off the top of their heads, most people got to 2 and then couldn’t think any further. Those 2 women were always from this list:
– Queen Elizabeth l
– Queen Victoria
– Florence Nightingale
We also got one errant Catherine of Aragon and an ‘Emily’ Pankhurst.
Even using pictures people struggled, with one guy mistaking Ada Lovelace for Kim Kardashian.
Like I said, it was a bleak day… but it was also totally normal.
From our little history bubble, we often forget that most people don’t come across women’s history on the day to day; and the history they do have access to is really limited.
There aren’t a whole lot of public sources dedicated to womens history. The history taught in schools tends to revolve around the same 3 or 4 women, mainstream history documentaries and books spreads that net a little wider, but it often stays within the pool of Queens, six wives and modern history. And we sadly know the current state of womens history museums all too well (looking at you Jack The Ripper museum!)
So how do we change this?
Well we can’t – unless people are allowed access to a diverse range of women from history.
And yes, this might sometimes mean it feels like your favourite gets sidelined for anouther woman… but you know what, that’s ok, it’s good.
Take for example, Ada Lovelace (not to be confused with Kim Kardashian…)
Over the last few years, mainstream history has been slowly re-disocvering Ada and her work. It’s inspired documentaries, exhibits, graphic novels and this girls amazing costume:
Ada Lovelace cementing her place in mainstream history has not written anyone else out. Rather it’s opened up the door for more of histories forgotten women. Its a chance to tell the stores of the Josephine Butlers of the world, the Ellen Wilkinsons and Coretta Scott Kings.
Because, we can have more than one.
We can have both Emmeline Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett without them cancelling each other out. We can celebrate both women, whilst acknowledging that they may have shared an end goal, but they had very different methods on how to get there!
If we put up a statue to Millicent Fawcett, that won’t create a collective amnesia; we’ll still remember Emmeline Pankhurst, but we might also start to discover a wider suffrage story; the suffragists as well as the suffragettes, the women of colour whose role in the movement is so often overlooked, and the the thousands upon thousands of forgotten working class women; without out whom there wouldn’t have been a movement at all.
I don’t know about you, buts thats the kind of women’s history I’m interested in; not one woman, but every woman.