Monday, 20 January 2020

No more pushing around of Mrs Pankhurst

When I was in London a few days ago I spent an enjoyable afternoon strolling around the Houses of Parliament and viewing the statues of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union, and suffragist Millicent Garratt Fawcett, leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.

Standing in the middle of Parliament Square on a cold, gloomy day with traffic going about its business, tourists going about their pleasure, and office workers going about their lunch, it was sobering to think of all the dreadful scenes that had taken place there just over a hundred years ago. When I shut my eyes many horribly familiar images rose up in my imagination. Of women attempting to deliver petitions to the House of Commons being set upon by police and thugs, kicked, knocked to the ground, and in some cases sexually assaulted. Of women having their clothes torn and their hair pulled out. Of women arrested, including Mrs Pankhurst herself.

A suffragette arrested at the Houses of Parliament, November 1910

Of course, the story of what happened in and around Parliament Square isn’t quite as straightforward as it might appear. There were many people who wondered why the suffragettes deliberately put themselves in harm’s way: was it merely to make martyrs of themselves? Others thought that the WSPU leadership was heedless of their followers’ welfare, recklessly throwing them into the fray for the sake of scoring propaganda points. The politicians, from Prime Minister Asquith down, who refused to receive the women to accept their suffrage petitions pointed out that they had made it clear in advance that they did not agree to an interview. The courts argued that if the suffragettes wished to deliver petitions they could just as easily post them as create public disorder by attempting to deliver them in person.

Christabel Pankhurst, Flora Drummond and Mrs Pankhurst in court, 1908, charged with conspiracy after asking people to "rush the House of Commons".

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the WSPU’s actions in Parliament Square, the fact remains that many of the women were treated with the utmost brutality.

Statue of Millicent Garrett Fawcett in Parliament Square, unveiled 2018

Indeed, given the fact that the Square was the site of some of the most bitter and notorious militant suffragette actions, there’s something a little incongruous about placing Millicent Garratt Fawcett’s statue there. However, there it stands, and it’s marvellous to see it. It is, of course, surrounded by statues of men: David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Jan Smuts, Disraeli, Sir Robert Peel, Palmerston, George Canning, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela.

The preponderance of men shouldn’t come as any surprise! In the UK generally, there are far fewer statues of women than there are of men. In 2018, it was reported that of 828 statues recorded, only one in five (174) were of women. Of these, only eighty were named. Fifteen of those were mythical, and many were nudes. And of the statues of named women, thirty nine were royal, with Queen Victoria accounting for the majority of them.

Luckily, steps are being taken to address this appalling imbalance. In recent years statues have been erected of Emily Wilding Davison (Morpeth, 2018), Elizabeth Frink (Coventry, 2018), Mary Barbour (Glasgow, 2018), Jane Austen (Basingstoke, 2017), and others. However, many new statues of women are still nameless.

More statues are planned, including one of Sylvia Pankhurst in Islington (see And I’m very excited by plans to memorialise one of my heroines, Mary Wollstonecraft, in Newington Green (see the Mary on the Green campaign website).

The statue of Emmeline Pankhurst stands in Victoria Tower Gardens. It was funded by the Suffragette Fellowship, which was founded in 1926 to bring former suffragettes together and memorialise the campaign. Although the statue has been moved once since it was originally unveiled in 1930, it was, and remains, extremely important that it should stand near the Houses of Parliament, the focus of Emmeline Pankhurst’s campaign.

In 1956 it was relocated when the Gardens were relandscaped to resite the Rodin statue. At that time, the Suffragette Fellowship objected to preliminary proposals to move it further from the Houses of Parliament. After negotiation with the Fellowship, it was placed in its present location. During the debate in the House of Commons, MPs asked for reassurance on behalf of the Suffragette Fellowship “that there will be no more pushing around of Mrs Pankhurst”.[i] In 1958, the low stone wall which flanks the statue was added. 

There was an attempt to move the statue to a private site in Regents Park in 2018, but after over 800 objections were received by Westminster City Council, planning permission was refused.

So I’ll leave you with the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst in Victoria Tower Gardens. Behind her are the Houses of Parliament – the institution that once tried so hard to keep her out.

Statue of Emmeline Pankhurst, Victoria Tower Gardens, unveiled at this site in 1958

Picture Credits: 

A Suffragette Arrested at the Houses of Parliament November 1910; and Christabel Pankhurst, Flora Drummon and Mrs Pankhurst in court, 1908: Women's Library on Flickr, No Known Copyright Restrictions

 Further information

For information on recent and planned statues of women see The Invisible Women website 

[i] HC Deb June 28 1955, vol 543 cc170-1, Hansard,

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