Wander into London’s Parliament Square today and you’ll be greeted by 11 towering statues: all hugely well-respected figures; all men. Later this year, however, a woman will join Churchill, Mandela, Gandhi et al: Millicent Fawcett, the women’s suffrage pioneer.
Today we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which granted voting rights to women for the first ever time (as long as they were over the age of 30 and met a property qualification, of course). The new statue is just one way the capital plans to commemorate this landmark year.
Ever since Sadiq Khan became mayor of London in 2016, he has supported Caroline Criado-Perez’s campaign to get a statue of a woman in Parliament Square. A self-proclaimed feminist, when Refinery29 meets him at an intimate roundtable in City Hall, he is loudly enthusiastic about #BehindEveryGreatCity, the yearlong campaign to mark the centenary and drive forward gender equality across London today.
“The point that I feel strongly about is that if you’re a girl or a young woman going around our city and you see all these statues of these brilliant people and they happen to be blokes all the time – what does that do to your sense of aspiration, achievement and sense of accomplishment?” he asks. “And there must be a reason that we have statues – because they have impact, celebrating great victories and progress made but also an impact on attitudes.”
Designed by the artist Gillian Wearing, she found it difficult to represent an entire movement with just one person. And so it was decided that the statue would also display etchings of 59 other people (including four men) who were instrumental in achieving women’s suffrage. Khan is keen to highlight how diverse the people featured are.
“They are from all different backgrounds from across the country – different socio-economic backgrounds, different ethnicities – who were involved in the campaign,” he says. Alongside the famous names such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Wilding Davison, there are lesser-known heroes such as Sophia Duleep Singh, a campaigner from a prominent Indian family, and Laurence Housman, a founding member of the Men's League for Women's Suffrage.
Khan is particularly taken by the story of Jessie Craigen, a working class campaigner, of whom no photograph exists. “It tells you a lot about how history captures certain characters and not others,” he notes.
As part of the celebrations, today there will also be a public exhibition in Trafalgar Square featuring life-sized images of the figures that appear on Wearing’s statue before it moves on to new venues, including the Museum of London. Khan suggests it should make for a fun, interactive and educational display. “Go along to Trafalgar Square and take a selfie with these amazing people,” he smiles. On 10th June there will also be simultaneous processions in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast to celebrate the centenary, and we'll be treated to Art on the Underground’s first-ever yearlong programme of works by exclusively women artists.
When asked how he plans to use the anniversary to shine a spotlight on other issues such as the pay gap and sexual assault in the capital, Khan points out that he has been the first mayor who has ever published a gender pay audit at City Hall and published an action plan to reduce the 5% gap that it revealed (by April 2018 all companies with more than 250 employees must reveal their gender pay gap). He is concerned that the pay gap in London today is 14.6% when 20 years ago it was 15.1%. But he leads by example.
As for sexual assault, he remains committed to a campaign encouraging women to report being sexually harassed and assaulted on the Tube, which has resulted in more prosecutions. But he knows that there is still much work to do. “For the first time there is a movement against gender equality. We’ve seen the rise of narrow populist movements, that’s why men have to be allies to women in the fight for gender equality.”
Khan has been a huge champion for women, even installing them to head up both the Metropolitan Police and London Fire Brigade for the first time ("on merit", he is quick to add). But which living woman would he most like to see a statue of in Parliament Square?
“Somebody I adore is Doreen Lawrence… I think she is a modern day hero,” he says. “Statues clearly matter. Otherwise we wouldn’t have them and that’s why it’s important we try and balance them.”