Greer calls out lack of statues of women

// 8 September 2008

Why so few statues of women in the UK? And when women are immortalised in sculture, why are they so small? That’s the question posed by Germaine Greer in the Guardian today.

She doesn’t provide an answer (perhaps because it’s so obvious – male-dominated patriachal culture, duh?!).

There are lots of other problems with the country’s legacy of sculpture, of course – anyone taking a tour of London’s statues will notice a preponderance of men ‘famous’ for killings lots of people during battles related to the country’s bloody history of Empire.

Which is partly why I disagree strongly with Greer’s bemoaning the lack of gargantuan Thatchers dotting the land:

No effigies of Margaret Thatcher were made while she was in power. Neil Simmons’ undistinguished marble likeness was commissioned by a private patron in 1998, eight years after Thatcher left office; at 8ft tall it was called “huge”, when it is actually smaller than effigies of less distinguished male prime ministers. If it had been genuinely huge, Paul Kelleher might not have succeeded in knocking its head off a few months after it was unveiled at the Guildhall Gallery. In court, he defended his action as an artistic expression of his “right to interact with this broken world”. The bronze Thatcher by Antony Dufort that stands holding up a minatory finger in the lobby of the House of Commons is smaller and the head out of scale, so that the great lady appears dwarfed. Neither figure projects any sort of authority; Thatcher is presented as an elderly woman with jowls and a sharp nose. Her Spitting Image puppet is more impressive.

I get the point, of course, and certainly part of the reason for this is Thatcher is a woman. That said, I can’t exactly get behind calls for her to be immortalised on a grand scale – Sure, she was the only female prime minister, but she was also a lot of other things that make me reluctant to see her to be cast her in gigantic, stately stone!

Maybe it’d be good to see not only artistic representations of women, any women, but also some changes in who gets the sculpture treatment and why…

[Update] I was googling for a list of statues of women in London (didn’t find one), but I did find this BBC story from February, when it was reported that London was to get its first ever statue of a black woman. And it’s an anonymous African woman holding a baby.

Comments From You

Tony Moll // Posted 8 September 2008 at 1:54 pm

Most of the good, great and evil in British history have been done by men. It is reflection of male dominance and the status reflect the past. It’s not ideal but we cannot change the past – only celebrate and learn from it

While society changes and women become invovled in many areas, it is silly to bemoan the relative lack of female statues. There are very few female equivalents of Newton, Richard the Lionheart, Cromwell etc.

Sabre // Posted 8 September 2008 at 2:19 pm

I work in London and have noticed the statue discrepancy there. As well as being more numerous the men statues seem to be more prominently placed, on higher plinths (some very phallic). You can’t even see Nelson because he’s so high up above us mere mortals!

There is a nice statue of Emmeline Pankhurst near the Houses of Parliament but it’s quite tucked away and modest compared to those statues dotted around Parliament Square. That always used to bug me when I worked in Westminster.

Some suggestions for statues: Florence Nightingale, Princess Di, Countess de Markievicz (first woman MP, or was it Nancy Astor?), Baroness Wootton (First woman in the House of Lords), Jane Austen, Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, Boudicca, Marie Stopes, and loads others! Some of these may be questionable but so are many of the male statues.

There are so many statues honouring those soldiers in wars (and I’m not questioning whether we should honour them) but what about the women who held things together? How about more statues celebrating the fact that without women on the home front we wouldn’t have done half as well in WWII? Who knows, it may even inspire girls and women to do great things rather than just want to be glamour models.

It was quite cool having that pregnant woman statue in London, but I did wonder why the only statue of a woman attracting so much attention was naked and themed on reproduction.

JENNIFER DREW // Posted 8 September 2008 at 2:27 pm

Another question why is the monument to the many brave and courageous women who were involved in war work during WWII reduced to just empty greatcoats and tin hats. This monument is in Whitehall and yet anyone passing by would not know its purpose is to highlight women’s roles in WWII. Why did not the sculptor have images of women undertaking war work, instead of just articles of clothing. Does this mean then, that women unlike men are invisible. Yes of course it does, because the male statues depict men supposedly engaged in ‘valiant’ actions.

Just proves once again, women are invisible and not valued as highly as huge statues depicting males.

Zenobia // Posted 8 September 2008 at 2:27 pm

Gargantuan marble statues of Maggie Thatcher? Well, you could probably think of quite a few creative uses for those (doggie toilet? Tethering pole? Final event in darts tournament? Final boss of the next Final Fantasy game?), but on the whole I’d be slightly worried about Marble Maggie shooting radiation out of her eye sockets.

Jess McCabe // Posted 8 September 2008 at 2:38 pm

@Tony Moll – Or, alternatively: women have done fantastic and amazing things, despite and within a system of male domination, but have not had their deeds recognised – at least in statue form.

As Sabre has just done, it is easy to reel off a list of women that – even within the context of what male dominated society values – have succeeded amply to justify big statues adorning the streets. But you don’t see that happen.

(Although there’s a Boudicca statue by the Thames, near Parliament as it happens)

Incidentally, I was googling for a list of statues of women in London (didn’t find one), but I did find this BBC story from February, when it was reported that London was to get its *first ever* statue of a black woman. And it’s an anonymous African woman holding a baby. Right, I’m going to add that to the post actually!

Sabre // Posted 8 September 2008 at 2:38 pm

Picking up on Tony Moll’s comments, yes there are less women of prominence in history, but there are far more than are given credit by the statues we have. Nobody would expect to have equal numbers of women statues if that didn’t reflect the past. But women have contributed much to our society and shaped history, it would be good to acknowledge this more fairly.

JENNIFER DREW, I’ll have to take a walk by Westminster and have a look at that statue again. I didn’t even realise what it was for! Like many others I’m sure. It is totally ridiculous that a statue commemorating women has no women in it.

Kath // Posted 8 September 2008 at 2:54 pm

Sabre – Countess de Markiewicz was indeed the first female MP (in 1918 for Sinn Fein), the first female TD (member of the Dail Eireann, the Irish parliament) and the first female cabinet minister in the world. She never took her seat in Westminster, in line with Sinn Fein policy, and was not present for the first sitting of the Irish Dail as she was in prison in Britain at the time. She served as Minister for Labour in Ireland until the civil war when she fought on the side of the Republicans. After the war she joined Fianna Fail and was re-elected to the Dail but died before she could take up her seat. Before her parliamentary career she had been an activist for Irish Republicanism and women’s suffrage.

Nancy Astor was elected MP for the Unionist (Tory) party in 1919 and was the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons.

Anne Onne // Posted 8 September 2008 at 3:40 pm

Tony, please remember that the fact that your average person cannot think of many women who have contributed to history does not mean that women have not contributed to history. The fact that society has favoured attention on rich white men does not mean other people have not done anything of note, but that they were strongly discouraged and ignored when they did accomplish something. What better way to show history for what it was by honouring those who were ignored, and say ‘look, these people do matter’?

What about Millicent Fawcett? Why not statues of the women who fought to get us the right to vote, or to work? So many women contributed to all the rights we have, and have shaped our lives every bit as much as the men who went to war.

Or why not a full statue of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, one of Britain’s first female doctors, and the first female Mayor? Or Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the first female doctor recognised on the Medical Register in 1859? (Women were allowed to qualify in some countries before they were officially recognised for their efforts here)

I do remember there being a small bust of the first woman to qualify as a Doctor when I was walking around in Euston, but I forgot who it was exactly, and the honour seems to belong to several women online! All the same, it goes to show that even against the odds (such as not being allowed to study in the UK, or not having their degrees officially recognised!) women have fought to contribute to society.

I remember a reply to an accusation that women have privilege, because it struck a chord in my mind: it was along the lines of the fact that society recognises the risks the men who fought to (allegedly) defend this country took, and their sacrifices, but it has never recognised the risks women undergo to carry to term and give birth to the next generation. They said that only when military expoits of men go unannounced, and there are streets full of statues dedicated to women who died in childbirth, then can men claim women have some sort of privilege over them.

I don’t think statues dedicated to all the women who died in childbirth is a bad idea, at all. It’s no less self-sacrificing than saving a comrade in battle. It’s no less painful. The reason why it is not acknowledged, and soldiers are, is because society has never acknowledged the work women have put into having children, looking after them, and domestic work, anything coded ‘female’, whilst lauding things that affect mostly men as being ‘noble’ and worthy of notice. This isn’t to say that those things aren’t, but that the things women have done should not be ignored, either. I’d even suggest a statue to the women who have died in backstreet abortions…

Also, Margaret Thatcher hasn’t been liberal, by any means, but I don’t think she was less problematic than say, Churchill, and the fact that he’s revered (despite his imperialistic tendencies, amongst other things) is a sign that as a society (not necessarily the posters here) we judge female politicians by a different standard, and are quicker to dislike or be suspicious of them.

Furthermore, saying it’s ‘silly’ to ask that our 50% of the population, who have been contributing to history since time began, get some public recognition when hundreds of random soldiers and politicians have statues devoted to them is rather insulting. You might not think women should be recognised for the acheivements that history has ignored, or what they are doing now, but that is a function of your privilege and the fact that as a man, you’ve had people like you publicly recognised in every field.

Jennifer Drew: I remember that statue! At first it freaked me out a bit, because it looked like they had hanged some people! I can see what they meant to portray: all the workclothes of the many fields women worked in through the wars, and I think they were probably trying to get as many fields into the statue without having to put up a statue with 10 women in it. I do think that a larger statue with women wearing the actual clothes would have been better. The new approach could partly be because it’s a new statue, and they wanted a departure from tradition, but I do feel it would make women’s efforts more visible if there were more noticeable statues of women.

Tony Moll // Posted 8 September 2008 at 3:51 pm

I saw the memorial to women in WWII in London over the weekend. It was rubbish but only because it was modern art, which in my opinion is mostly rubbish anyway. It was certainly was not because the artist devalued the work of women. And even though I was passing in car I could read that it was commemorating women.

Sabre, I agree with you that women held things together during the war, but even you must admit that being drafted into the frontline (without a choice really) to face the Nazi war machine was more of a sacrifice.

Most of the statues in London celebrate people that made britain greater than its comptempoaries and this was mostly due to its ability to bomb (rightly or wrongly) other people into submission. It is right that these men are recognized and it really does not matter if there are far more statues of men that women.

There are bigger problems facing women.

Cara // Posted 8 September 2008 at 4:18 pm

Jennifer Drew – yes, I know that monument. It was bugging me, but I couldn’t figure out why.


Charlotte // Posted 8 September 2008 at 4:52 pm

I love how Boudicca’s mate has her breasts hanging out.


Pete // Posted 8 September 2008 at 5:41 pm

Perhaps a giant Thatcher for Ebbsfleet? That would perhaps sort the weight ratio out…

Other than that I think the answer is simply that men have held the purse strings over the construction of these satatues for as long there has been statuework in Britain coupled with the relatice paucity of famous/remembered women from the olden days.

Though it may be interesting to see medival women had female statues made when they gave money to monasteries/nunnaries etc.

Stephanie // Posted 8 September 2008 at 5:59 pm

Here’s the one of Emmeline Pankhurst (and me!), it is nice but quite small and tucked away:

Anne Onne // Posted 8 September 2008 at 7:29 pm

Has anyone else noticed that figures of women representing abstract ideas such as the Empire, Victory etc abound, despite the lack of statues symbolising real women? funny that the Old Patriarchs had nothing against classically-dressed (or naked) women, so long as they weren’t honouring anybody who actually existed…

Tony Moll: ”Sabre, I agree with you that women held things together during the war, but even you must admit that being drafted into the frontline (without a choice really) to face the Nazi war machine was more of a sacrifice.”

Actually, I’d say that being sent to a concentration camp would probably trump both and this was not limited to men, or even adults. War’s worst victims are always the civilians (predominantly women, children and the elderly) who get stuck in it without weapons or brute strength on their side, but the point here isn’t to play oppression olympics. It’s to recognise that people have put forward a contribution to society. Nobody is saying that soldiers have not had a hard time, or still don’t have a hard time, whatever our stances on the military or how we believe foreign policy should be run.

The issue here isn’t merely that soldiers (a carreer limited to men, and still hard for women to get ahead in because the career-enhancing positions are denied to women) are being acknowledged, but the things women have done (against society and the odds) have been ignored. Take childbirth, for instance. If we’re judging by patriotic standards, and looking for noble sacrifices for our country, dying giving birth to the next generation is not less meaningful than dying in a war. A new generation is needed to buoy the economy and keep the country going, so the country should be indebted to the women who, despite the risks and the long term affects to their health, carry pregnancies to term and give birth, especially if they die. Not to mention the effort women have for generations put into raising children. These are the contributions women have made to history, in addition to academia etc. Like the lower classes, they have supported the ‘Great and the Good’ from the shadows, raising the next generation and ensuring that those who held power could do their job. Sadly, support isn’t often lauded.

Sadly, as Patriarchy would have it, giving birth (though not an essential part of being human) gets cast as mundane, everyday news, because nearly any woman can do it, and men can’t. Sure, in the old days women had no choice, but that doesn’t mean the fact they had to go through it, knowing the very real risks of dying any less meaningful.

Incidentally, around 1/9 of the British fatalities of WWI were civillians, and around 1/7 of the fatalities of WWII were civilians, and a lot of countries lost more civilians than the UK lost soldiers or even total UK casualties. the UK didn’t lose a huge amount of casualties, soliders or not, compared to a lot of countries, and I don’t think statues should be limited to British-only people, either. Nor does Nelson Mandela having a statue somehow counteract the fact that the majority are to random generals (not even to the poor soldiers who did most of the legwork!).

We have to step up to the fact that so far, society has chosen to mostly honour men of war, and what that says about past and present society. We don’t need to do that, we can honour whoever society sees as having really made a contribution.

Let’s not forget that on the continent, the grisly realities of war were realities for more than just the soldiers sent off.

Let’s especially not forget the people, many of them women, sent in various wars to attend to the dying and injured. The horror of the trenches may be great, but I’ll bet attending to hundreds of men dying of gangrene and massive blood loss, whilst in fear of your own life can’t have been fun.

So yes, I’m proud of great-granddad for serving in the wars. But you know what, I’m as proud of great-grandma for giving birth in the middle of a war, looking after her children in the middle of a wartorn continent.

Come to think of it, despite the fact we’re getting constant references to ‘I/dad/granddad didn’t fight the war for us to have X’ I think there are many things I’m as grateful we have as the fact that the Allies won the war.

You know, like my right to vote, my right to study at a university, my right to have an abortion, use contraception, to decide how many children I want and when, and my right to take part equally in society as a full human.

I want to see statues devoted to the people who made these rights happen, or who suffered or died because they did not have them, because these rights and the history surrouding them are no less important to me than the right to not be under Nazi occupation. * Yes, I’m very grateful, because had the Nazis won, I’d imagine my fate would have been dreadful, if I was born at all, but that’s not all I have to be grateful for, nor do statues need to be dedicated to one field.

Hell, we have lots of statues of male academics, why not more of female ones, especially since they often had to work against expectations and beg to be allowed to study?

Let’s add that to the list of privileges: focusing on soliders’ sacrifices/conscription is a privilege (predominantly white, heterosexual) men have, because many of the other things we as a society fought for in the last century or two have not benefited them directly. To the rest of us, fighting to be recognised as human, because we are POC, women, LGBTQ or not Christian, and have our achievements recognised is as important.

* Of course, Nazi occupation would have been a terrible thing, and we should all be grateful, Jewish or not, that they were defeated. Fighting the Nazis and the suffrage and civil rights movements are not in opposition, here, they are positively interwoven, and as such many people deserve recognition for various roles they played, and for what happened to them. It’s not the fact that men/soldiers get recognised we have an issue with. It’s that they get 99% of the recognition, at the expense of the many others who contributed or suffered as much.

Redheadinred // Posted 8 September 2008 at 10:12 pm

Feministing post on this subject

Have Your say

To comment, you must be registered with The F-Word. Not a member? Register. Already a member? Use the sign in button below

Sign in to the F-Word

Further Reading

Has The F-Word whet your appetite? Check out our Resources section, for listings of feminist blogs, campaigns, feminist networks in the UK, mailing lists, international and national websites and charities of interest.

Write for us!

Got something to say? Something to review? News to discuss? Well we want to hear from you! Click here for more info

  • The F-Word on Twitter
  • The F-Word on Facebook
  • Our XML Feeds