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Why we need more statues of women

Updated: Apr 29, 2021

‘Mary Wollstonecraft’ by Maggi Hambling. ‘It’s a sculpture about now, in her spirit.’

Statues of women are troubling. Just look at the reaction to the 2020 Mary Wollstonecraft statue by Maggi Hambling. ‘Catastrophically wrong,’ cried Caroline Criado-Perez, the prime mover behind the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square; ‘A wet dream of a woman.’ Would the mother of feminism have been happy with this naked representation of Everywoman? Maybe not – but at least we now all know who Mary Wollstonecraft was. Statues educate, inform and – ideally – spark debate. They can also be catalysts for change.

Another contentious statue is that of Nancy Astor, the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons, on 28 November, 1919.

This crowdfunded bronze statue was, soon after its unveiling, defaced by an graffitist who took issue with some of the era’s politics – namely, Nancy’s short-lived flirtation with fascism. It was to be expected. This is the first and only statue of a female Member of Parliament erected in a public space. And it is a hugely significant monument ⁠— and not just for Plymouth Sutton, Nancy’s constituency for 26 years, or for today’s female MPs.

Campaign supremo Alexis Bowater gets her first glimpse of the bronze Lady Astor statue, sculpted by Hayley Gibbs

It’s significant because this isn’t a statue of a nymph, or a goddess, or the Virgin Mary. It’s not a fictional character, or an Everywoman. It’s a real woman ⁠— someone complicated, flawed, inventive and determined. A statue of a woman commemorated for her historic role in British politics. Nancy the iconoclast. The door breaker.

Lady Astor on the campaign trail. Being visible was key to securing votes ⁠— whether at a football match, in a church bazaar or a street gathering. She gave speeches in gasworks, wharves and marine barracks. Astor was re-elected in Plymouth seven times over, serving 26 years as a Conservative MP. ‘If you want an MP who will be a repetition of the 600 other MPs don’t vote for me,’ she said. ‘If you can’t get a fighting man, take a fighting women.’

So where does this monument fit in? There are 65 statues of MPs in Britain: all male. Of the 828 statues recorded last year by the Public Statues and Sculpture Association, only 174 are of women. Of these, almost half are fictional figures, 14 are of the Virgin Mary and 46 of royalty (mostly Queen Victoria). That means just 9 per cent of Britain’s statues are of named, real women.

Nancy Astor statue, unveiled on the Plymouth Hoe, 28 November 2019

Like all real women, Nancy Astor is a complicated heroine. She was a wealthy socialite. A temperance fanatic. Conservative. An American divorcee who flirted with Fascism and appeasement. A self-confessed “ardent feminist,” driven by her commitment to women, yet one who played no part in the suffrage movement. She fought tooth and nail to step into her husband’s constituency at a bi-election for Plymouth Sutton, Devon, when he inherited his father’s viscountcy. She stood down in 1945, seven general elections later, aged 66.

Nancy’s place in history was galling in the extreme to militant suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, since she had played no part in “the cause.”

As for the men? Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for War and Air, was not alone in finding the intrusion of a female into the men’s club discomforting in the extreme. He reportedly complained to her face that having a woman in parliament was like having a woman burst in on him in the bathroom, when he had nothing to defend himself with but a sponge. “Nonsense, Winston,” came Nancy’s quick riposte. “You’re not good looking enough to have fears of this sort.”

For two years, Astor was the only female MP in the Commons. She faced a barrage of misogyny from the majority of male MPs who did not want her there ⁠— though when interviewed in 1958, she recalled fondly the men’s great ‘chivalry’.

Nancy Astor is of particular interest to me as the only MP determined enough to push the Plumage Bill through the House of Commons in 1921. Five times since 1908 this Bill had been passed in the House of Lords then shelved by the House of Commons. Five times MPs had dragged their feet, listened to the plumage merchants and put commercial interest in front of bird protection. Species the world over were being brought, slowly but surely, to extinction.

The campaign to save the world’s birdlife from plumed fashion was fought for 30 long years. It was a campaign run by women: the female founders of the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). ‘But what do men care” cried RSPB supporter Virginia Woolf in a furious article about male inertia in the Commons. “The Plumage Bill is for all practical purposes dead.”

‘The Woman Behind the Gun’, 1911. If women didn’t wear the plumes, the birds wouldn’t be shot – so went the popular argument. But there was huge vested interest in keeping the lucrative plumage trade running, and delaying bird protection legislation

When Nancy Astor took her seat in the Commons, she immediately started probing as to why this bill kept being blocked. With characteristic astringency, she pronounced it “astonishing” that a bill could have failed for so many years, when it had found favour with so many. Under Lady Astor’s “formidable” aegis, a parliamentary group was galvanised into action.

The Plumage Importation (Prohibition) Act was passed in 1921: exotic plumage could no longer be imported, or worn with impunity. The women behind the RSPB rejoiced. And, in researching their story, I too rejoiced when I discovered that our first female MP was responsible for securing the final victory.

There is growing impetus for women’s historic achievements to be remembered. Since the publication of my book, Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury and Feminism – Women’s Fight for Change in 2018, six of its central suffragist and political characters have now been commemorated with a statue:

⁠—Millicent Fawcett, sculpted by Gillian Wearing, unveiled in Parliament Square, London on 24 April 2018.

⁠—Emmeline Pankhurst by Hazel Reeves, unveiled in St Peter’s Square, Manchester on 14 December 2018. (The Pankhurst sculpture in Westminster, London, was created in 1930.)

⁠—Emily Wilding Davison by Ray Lonsdale, unveiled in Morpeth, Northumberland on 11 September 2018.

Alice Hawkins by Sean Hedges-Quinn, unveiled in Leicester on 4 February 2018.

Annie Kenney by Denise Dutton, unveiled in Oldham, Manchester on 14 December 1918.

Hayley Gibbs, pictured here in her Croydon studio, won the commission to sculpt Nancy Astor

—Nancy Astor by Hayley Gibbs, unveiled in Plymouth on 28 November 2019.

The suffrage centenary last year got the ball rolling. Many more statues of women are in the pipeline. Who will be next?

It's time to remember the women who kick-started our conservation movement.

Their extraordinary legacy has not been remembered by history.

⁠—Etta Lemon (left) another complicated heroine; RSPB dynamo for its first half century deserves at the very least a blue plaque on her house in Redhill, Surrey.

⁠—Eliza Phillips, faceless but not voiceless, co-founder and trenchant publications editor for the RSPB for 30 years, should be remembered in Croydon. Where, and how?

⁠—Emily Williamson, founder of the Society for the Protection of Birds in Didsbury, Manchester, deserves a statue. Her house still stands, her garden now Fletcher Moss Park.

It is the perfect spot. With RSPB backing, I launched a campaign in November 2020. We now have a shortlist of four sculptors and a timeline. Join the campaign, help make this a reality.

Emily Williamson statue competition long-list, February 2021

Let 2021, the centenary of the Plumage Act, be visibly marked. Let these women inspire a new generation of environmental campaigners. Let their remarkable legacy be remembered.

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1 Comment

Erich Manning
Erich Manning
Jun 13, 2022

There's quite a lot of errors in your pages. First the statue of Mary Wollstonescraft is not 'of her' and therefore is not a statue 'of a woman'. It is an absurd scrawl with a naked female torso on top whose pubic region could well be trans. Not I think what MW was fighting for. Secondly Nancy Astor is not the only statue of a female Member of Parliament erected in a public space. There is Margaret Thatcher both in the Houses of Parliament and in Grantham. And for many reasons many members of the public may want to deface her. I don't think politics is 'neutral' nor do I believe having more statues of women necessarily makes the point.…

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