Overdue

Without cues, without exposure, the questions about the women who changed Britain never get asked, argues Jess Phillips

The world is currently caught up in a debate about statues. The shadow of the killing in Charlottesville by far-right protesters could leave most sane-minded people thinking this is a lot of fuss over a lump of metal. Of course it is not the raw materials or even the subject matter themselves that sparked protest but what it represents that lights a fuse. What we commemorate matters to people, and the symbols that fill our public spaces inform citizens about what a particular place is about.

I would never have thought that icons mattered to me, until I went to work in a place that, as well as being an icon itself, is packed to the rafters with gargoyles and monuments. As I pace around the palace of Westminster or walk to meetings in its surroundings, until recently the history of my people was missing.

When I first went to Westminster with my children on a sunny May spring day, I took my children over to Parliament Square to run around among the flags and statues and eat our sandwiches. My husband and I quizzed them to name the countries on the flagpoles and the people on the plinths. What my children learned about this particular place is that it is for great men. My little boys looked up at Winston Churchill and Mahatma Ghandi and asked questions all about who they were and what they did. We delighted in telling them a potted history.

A hundred years have passed since women got the vote, but I did not get to tell that story to my children that day because they did not ask, ‘Who is that woman?’ Without the cues, without exposure, without commemoration those questions do not get asked. Icons matter. In 2018 I will stand proudly at the unveiling of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square. I will look up at that woman and feel thankful that she existed. I will tell my children her story, the story of a woman who fought for women like me to be able to take part in our democracy. A woman who knew that if poor women, sick women, abused, exploited and prostituted women and children were ever going to be cared about, we needed women in that building. I like to think she be would pleased that every day women are rising to their feet in parliament trying to achieve exactly what she was fighting for, although she might be more disappointed with the progress.

I knew who Fawcett was before brilliant feminist campaigners fought for her effigy, but I did not know as much as I do now. Since it was announced that Fawcett would be honoured in this way, I have read all about her campaigns for vulnerable, abused women and children. Her history is brought to life.

For many just having a woman up there so boys and girls can run among the statues and know our nation was built by men and women is enough. For me the statue means something different, it opens a crack in the door that has been shut on women’s political history. So often the women in the room and outside the room seem to be written out of the history books. If you were to read even the last 50 years of memoirs of British politicians you might think women had never got the vote.

As we enter the centenary of women’s suffrage, I am desperate not to spend the year simply sentimentalising the past but instead to look forward and use the celebrations as a platform for progress. However on the day that Fawcett is unveiled I will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with political women and activist women and know that we all owe this woman a debt. We will repay it by telling her story every time a little girl or boy runs along and says ‘Who is that and what did she do?’

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Jess Phillips MP is chair of the women’s parliamentary Labour party. She tweets at @jessphillips

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