As Jeremy Corbyn kindly mansplained to the nation during Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, today is International Women’s Day.
Corbyn also helped the cause by joining over 40 men in signing a letter – in support of a public statue commemorating pioneering women’s’ rights activist Mary Wollstonecraft. Corbyn has previously described Wollstonecraft as his political hero. A passionate advocate for women, a true liberal and the author of the A Vindication of the Rights of Women, she is one of his few worthy political idols.
However, there is another feminist hero he is less keen on commemorating. The campaign for a statue of Britain’s first female Prime Minister is, unsurprisingly, yet to receive the support of the leader of the opposition.
When asked about a statue of Margaret Thatcher – plans for which were rejected in January by Westminster City Council – Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said women in politics should be judged on “how much progress they make the for next generation of women coming behind [them]”.
Westminster City Council gave several reasons for rejecting the statue, including the apparent lack of support from Thatcher’s children, but the one that stood out was concerns the statue would attract “civil disobedience and vandalism”.
While it’s understandable the council would want to avoid the extra cost of constant repairs I can’t help thinking Thatcher wouldn’t care. Nothing about Margaret Thatcher’s life, work, or premiership suggests to me she would be the sort of person who would take the threat of childish vandalism and public nuisance as a reason not to do something.
In modern life, public statues are seen by some as a wholehearted endorsement of everything that individual stood for. That is wrong; instead they are a sign of respect or recognition of an achievement. And guiding the nation through 13 years of rapid economic change and navigating a tumultuous international scene seems like something worth commemorating.
As the country’s first elected female leader, Thatcher was a trailblazer. First elected as an MP in 1959, one of only 25 female MPs among the 630-strong chamber, her experiences as a woman, a wife, and a mother informed her politics. She gave her name to an ideology that spread across the world and has taken root in numerous centre-right political parties. She swept away the default position that Prime Ministers should be men and – whether through admiration or detestation – she inspired countless people to take up a life of public service. As Jo Swinson, the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, put it at the weekend, “as a little girl growing up in the 1980s, it never even crossed my mind to doubt that a woman could be Prime Minister. Seeing a woman in charge, running the country was completely normal”.
The ongoing discussion around public statues of women is merited by what the Guardian letter refers to as a “bronze ceiling”. While the presence and prominence of women in our parliament, on our televisions, and on company boards might be improving, the representation of women in public art is woeful.
If you walk around Parliament Square and up Whitehall you will find no shortage of statues commemorating the great and the good, not just of Britain but other nations too. You could admire Mahatma Gandi and Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square, Abraham Lincoln is just behind them outside the Supreme Court. Churchill heads the row of British Prime Ministers keeping a watchful eye on Parliament. On Whitehall you will pass princes, politicians, and soldiers.
But you won’t see any women. Or not yet. A statue of Millicent Fawcett is due to be erected in Parliament Square in 2019. And Emmeline Pankhurst is nearby, hidden across the road in Victoria Gardens.
Even the Monument to the Women of World War II opposite the Cenotaph doesn’t actually depict the female form. Instead the artist chose to depict the clothing and uniforms worn by women who joined the workforce during the war in order to keep the country going.
It’s a situation repeated all across the country. Women account for fewer than 20 per cent of public statues in Britain and most of those are mythical, royal, or nude. If you’re a real-life woman who doesn’t happen to be Queen Victoria, your chances of having your achievements acknowledged in public art are vanishingly slim.
Holding women to a higher moral standard won’t solve this problem. We shouldn’t be setting false targets that women must meet before we deem them worthy of public acknowledgement. By all means put up a statue of Mary Wollstonecraft – but we must also have one of Margaret Thatcher. Because until we can respect and admire the contribution of women we disagree with, we won’t have true equality.