Rachel Holmes (A feminist statue is welcome. Shame it’s the wrong feminist, 15 April) is disappointed that Millicent Fawcett has been chosen as “the first woman to warrant a likeness” in Parliament Square. Holmes writes that this is part of the “airbrushing of history that makes the fight for women’s suffrage palatable in a contemporary context”. She also implies that the contribution of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, of which Millicent Fawcett was president, was less significant in the struggle for the vote than the Women’s Social and Political Union led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst.
I would argue that there has been a stronger focus on the Pankhursts because of their very dramatic and militant approach to the struggle, and that it is the “constitutionalists” led by Fawcett who have not had the attention they deserve. I would guess that many more people have heard of the Pankhursts than of Millicent Fawcett. Which wing of the suffrage movement contributed most to the eventual achievement of the vote is debated by historians: the combination of the two approaches seems to me to be the answer.
I understand and welcome the choice of Millicent Fawcett. Her sister Elizabeth (later famous for her struggle to allow women to practise as doctors) took the first petition demanding votes for women in 1866. Millicent was then 19. Three years later she made her first speech advocating women’s suffrage. In 1928 she took part in the final lobbying of the government which led to the granting of suffrage to all women over 21. In the articles which she wrote welcoming this achievement she acknowledged the enormous contribution to the struggle of the militant campaign led by the Pankhursts. A few weeks before her 82nd birthday, she made a speech in which she reminisced about her 61 years in the women’s movement and called attention to the rights and opportunities which had not yet been realised. Her final public appearance took place 60 years and a day after her first speech on women’s suffrage. She died two weeks later.
• We wholeheartedly agree with Rachel Holmes that a statue to a campaigner for women’s rights is long overdue in Parliament Square and are delighted that this is at last happening. For many years we tried to erect a statue to Sylvia Pankhurst on College Green, opposite the Palace of Westminster. We had the permission of Westminster council and the House of Commons but the Lords absolutely refused their permission. Thanks to Chris Smith and Islington council we now have a most appropriate site for Sylvia, the socialist suffragette, on Clerkenwell Green, London, “the headquarters of republicanism, revolution and ultra non–conformity”.
Like the campaign to recognise Mary Wollstonecraft on Newington Green, ours is grassroots funded, raising modest but welcome donations from individuals and trade union branches, though we are delighted to have the support of the Corporation of London. It is to be hoped that the recognition of the huge contribution made by Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Pankhurst not only to the rights of women but to equality and social justice, will, like the statue of Millicent Fawcett, be able to access the £5m set aside by the government to acknowledge the centenary of the first, limited franchise for women in 1918. Readers can donate via justgiving.com/crowdfunding/sylviastatue.
The Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Committee
• Of course it would be wonderful to have statues of Mary Wollstonecraft, Sylvia Pankhurst and indeed many other women. But Fawcett and the suffragists, as well as the suffragettes, made a considerable contribution to the cause of women’s suffrage, and are to be celebrated. In recognising that there are many others who might have been chosen, we do not have to denigrate her: it seems to me that to do so is a poor advertisement for feminism.
• Contemporary sculpture is a broad field comprising multiple forms of practice. Sculptors do their best work when they deploy their proven expertise rather than when they wander into other areas of which they have little experience. You wouldn’t appoint a plumber to fix your wiring, so why ask a conceptual artist to make your statue?
It is dismaying to see that Gillian Wearing, a celebrated and interesting conceptual artist, has been chosen to make the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square (Report, 14 April). There are several women sculptors in this country with the necessary years of specific experience required to erect a compelling statue in Parliament Square next to Epstein’s figure of Jan Smuts and Ivor Roberts Jones’s great monument to Churchill. Wearing is not one of them, as evidenced by her one misguided foray into the artform to date – the lamentably formless A Real Birmingham Family. We are told she was selected to make the statue of Fawcett by so-called “cultural leaders”. What bias led these experts to ignore the evidence that Wearing’s abilities lie elsewhere?
• In the lobby of the House of Commons, among the busts of prime ministers past and present, are four larger-than-life statues of, presumably, outstanding statesmen: Lloyd George, reformer and war leader, Clement Attlee, the great reformer, whose work has now all but been dismantled, Winston Churchill, war leader who, in his second term, had the good sense to leave Labour’s legacy largely untouched, and Margaret Thatcher. Are we to assume that the inclusion of a statue of the latter is dictated by the fact that she was the first British woman PM? Individual political opinion will differ, but with Ms Holmes’ comments in mind, is this really a fitting commentary on the fact that women have been voters and MPs for 100 years? That the ledges and plinths are taken exclusively by prime ministers is no justification for placing in such prominence a politician who did nothing for woman’s rights. If Nancy Astor, the first woman MP to take her seat, is unacceptable, then where is Margaret Bondfield, the first woman cabinet minister, or Ellen Wilkinson, to name but two, whose contribution to women’s rights, when it was unfashionable, was more significant?
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