A planned new statue of Emmeline Pankhurst is set to prove controversial and should be stopped, says CAROLINE CRIADO PEREZ
This week I heard that a new statue of a woman was being proposed for central London. Now, as some of you may know, I have a bit of a thing for statues.
So much so, in fact, that two years ago I spent a weekend counting all the statues in the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association database.
After counting 925 statues, I found that males outnumber females 2.5:1, and that the most common type of female statue was a figurative nude of no-one in particular — like ‘Girl in a Hat’ in the grounds of Birmingham University, which by the way also features a Grade II listed facade featuring 12 famous men from history.
I found that female statues most often serve as adoring decorative muses for statues of real-life men (my favourite of the genre being the half-naked Euterpe weeping over the bust of Arthur Sullivan — he’s so above lowly feminised corporeality he’s literally just a head) and that there are more statues of men called John than there are of non-royal female historical figures.
Incidentally, it is purely because of Queen Victoria’s unashamed love of putting up statues of herself that I have to use the qualifier ‘non-royal’: if you discount her, fewer than 3% of the statues I counted were of women who actually existed.
So you might think that on hearing about the proposed new statue I’d be delighted. Reader, you’d be wrong.
You see, this statue is of Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Founded in 1903, the WSPU was the leading militant group campaigning for women’s suffrage in Britain (as opposed to the NUWSS, the leading non-militant group). There is no doubt that Pankhurst is a hugely important figure in history and she absolutely deserves a statue.
The thing is, she already has one, just around the corner in Victoria Tower Gardens. It’s a brilliant location. It couldn’t be closer to Parliament, and surely no one needs an explanation of why that matters.
It also couldn’t be more accessible: it’s right at the entrance to the gardens, meaning it gets an annual footfall of millions — a figure that is surely set to get higher when the Holocaust Memorial opens nearby in 2021.
But more than this, Victoria Tower Gardens was the location chosen by Pankhurst’s sister suffragettes, who, following a fundraising effort, had the statue erected right by Parliament in 1930.
In 1955, the suffragettes objected to a slight repositioning of the statue to a more prominent location, because it was ’40 or 50 yards further away from the House of Commons’. They ultimately agreed having received an assurance from the Minister for Works that the statue would not be moved again. The location of Victoria Tower Gardens, therefore, no less than the statue itself, is a bona fide piece of suffrage history.
Why am I telling you all this? Because in order for the new one to be erected, this statue would have to be moved (Westminster council won’t allow two statues of the same person in such close proximity). The plan therefore is to move the original statue to Regent’s College, a private college with no connection to the Pankhursts.
One person it does have a connection with, however, is Sir Neil Thorne, the ex-Tory MP who is proposing the new statue. He first had his idea when his wife was walking their dog in Victoria Tower Gardens, and, clearly having no knowledge of the original statue’s history, thought it might be better placed in Parliament Square. On finding that the statue was too small for Parliament Square, the next hare-brained idea was to make a larger replica and move the original to Brompton Cemetery (which does at least have the benefit of having a connection to Mrs Pankhurst, although is still too far from the House of Commons as per the suffragettes’ clearly expressed wishes). Finally, they came up with an entirely new statue which they intend to erect in Canning Green, a traffic island behind Parliament Square.
This plan is an act of vandalism against women’s history. Sir Neil intends to replace a historically significant statue that is easily accessible and seen by millions of people every year with a vanity project tucked away out of sight on an inaccessible traffic island.
This is a story so outrageous it feels like the kind of thing feminists would make up as a cautionary tale. And yet, it’s all too true, and Sir Neil intends to get his way. Do not let him. His planning application is up on Westminster council’s website – go there, object, and be part of saving a truly irreplaceable piece of suffrage history.