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Monday, February 17, 2020

100 years after Emmeline…

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It has been reported by the BBC that Manchester will soon be erecting a statue of the women’s rights activist Emmeline Pankhurst. The article states that of all the statues in Manchester there is only 1 of a woman, which is Queen Victoria, in the centre of Piccadilly. (There is a really handy map of all the statues in Manchester city centre here.)


Queen Victoria sitting proudly in Piccadilly via Flickr
…Doesn’t this strike you as slightly odd?

The suffragette, who went down in history after battling to get women the vote in England in 1918 after years of political struggle, was famous for her extreme lengths in the fight for equality between the sexes. She, and other suffragettes and activists, campaigned for years for women to have a say in politics and parliament; after gaining the right for certain women to vote at the end of World War 1 in 1918, England saw the first ever woman to sit as a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons a year later in 1919 (Lady Astor).

A typical Suffragette campaign

The fight for women and equality was spearheaded by Emmeline Pankhurst’s founding of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903, which included the organisation’s co-founder (and Pankhurst’s own daughter) Christabel Pankhurst. This Union led the suffrage movement into the twentieth century, where it was increasingly evident that women’s roles scarcely ventured from the domestic life of cooking, cleaning and childcare. To an educated woman with voice and drive, this seemed prohibitive and unfair, because there were real legal barriers preventing them from entering into politics or having the freedom to vote. The WSPU led campaigns such as holding marches bearing placards past the parliament buildings in London, and then when some of the members were arrested, they would go on hunger strike in prison to draw attention to the cause. They wanted to gain national awareness and bring other women’s’ support to the cause, and so attracted the press and media to try and pressure the government into making changes to the outdated law.

A Suffragette on hunger strike being force fed in prison, from The Daily Herald 1913

The suffragette movement meant that in 1918 a certain percentage of women were given the right to vote. Gradually over the years, the group of women allowed to vote grew and grew until this very day, where it is nationally accepted that anybody over the age of 18 has a basic human right to vote and air their opinions, regardless of their sex.

This country has seen an impressive list of powerful females since that monumental date in 1918: an incredibly powerful Prime Minister in Margaret Thatcher, numerous women in parliament and politics every day like Nicola Sturgeon or Natalie Bennett, female business magnates and leaders of international businesses such as Deborah Meaden, Karren Brady and Michelle Mone. We have Oscar winning actresses such as Kate Winslet and Dame Judi Dench. We have authors propelled instantly into the canon in JK Rowling, and most notably the longest ever reigning monarch in Queen Elizabeth II. Upon her celebration of reigning for over 63 years (surpassing Victoria’s record) she said, humbly:

“A long life can pass by many milestones – my own is no exception.”

So, after the huge efforts of all of these independent women, how can it be right that in an article celebrating the life and achievements of a leading female revolutionist, we are told that her monument will be outnumbered by men? After all of her efforts to equalise the proportion of power and glory, today there only stands one female statue in a city littered with shrines to historical male figures.


Actually, aside from Queen Victoria’s statue, there is 1 other depiction of a female in monument form in the city. This is the ‘Messenger of Peace’ near St. Peter’s Square, and Manchester’s leading news website has so very little to say about it. The rest are famous (male) politicians or artists or academics. If the population of Manchester’s monuments were taken to represent the leading writers, revolutionaries or freethinkers over the past few hundred years, it would lead us to believe that mostly the men created, thought of, and fought for everything we have today. It is an example of an imbalance between male and female power which Pankhurst had a problem with in the first place.

…How many famous statues or monuments can you think of? Abraham Lincoln in Washington DC. Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, the Italian David statue, Rodin’s The Thinker. All massively impressive works of art which display the fortitude and strength of male prowess.

Onto females…The Statue of Liberty is probably the most famous. However, she doesn’t actually exist. She isn’t a person like Lincoln. She is an abstract concept, an idol to represent the fortunes of America. Similarly with the above mentioned ‘Messenger of Peace’ in Manchester, the only other female monument in the city aside from Queen Victoria. She is nameless and carries only the message of tranquility. With what we have read about women- the suffrage movement, the ascent into political, personal, and domestic freedom, the right to own businesses and stand in positions of worldwide power…does this really correlate? The growth of woman has, in the past century, quite literally sky-rocketed. Why isn’t this represented in lauded monument form on the streets of one of the UK’s major cities? Why do we only remember the great men of the last century, like Alan Turing, Winston Churchill, and John Barbirolli?

It seems paradoxical and almost ironic. To erect a statue celebrating women’s’ emancipation from an overbearing patriarchal society and have it physically overshadowed by men. Maybe the decision was purposeful, to highlight the distance the rest of the female liberators have to travel to reach equality. Or, maybe, hopefully, the decision was a defiant reminder of just what women are capable of in a field of difficulty. And, maybe, it was a decision Emmeline Pankhurst would be immeasurably proud of, like the women of today.


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