Women’s erasure from women’s memorials

The only memorial to women's contributions in World War II depicts empty clothing. Carolyn Dougherty considers what this says about the erasure of women from public spaces. With contributions from Alex Wardrop

, 16 June 2011

Where are the public memorials to commemorate women’s contributions to our past? World War II looms large in the UK’s history, but you will struggle to find many sculptures representing women’s role.

The Paperwomen collective, founded in Bristol in 2010, aims to draw attention to, and in some small ways reverse, the erasure of women from history, specifically their absence from memorials in public places. While doing so it aims to celebrate the women who have contributed to our cities and our pasts.

The monument to the women of World War II commemorates ‘women’, but carefully avoids portraying any actual, physical women – only their empty suits of clothes

Since meeting Paperwomen at the Carnival of Feminist Cultural Activism in York, I’ve become more aware of how images of real women are absent from public spaces.

A striking example of this absence came to my attention recently, on the 500,000-strong March for the Alternative in London on 26 March. As we proceeded down Whitehall, the seat of political power in this country, past larger-than-life-sized bronze portraits of men who led and fought in World War II, I noticed this monument:


Dozens of statues in London represent the men of World War II, from Winston Churchill in Parliament Square to the generals that face the street on both sides of Whitehall. Even memorials that don’t commemorate specific people, like the Battle of Britain memorial or the Royal Tank Regiment memorial, portray the physical presence of men:



The monument to the women of World War II, in contrast, commemorates ‘women’, but carefully avoids portraying any actual, physical women – only their empty suits of clothes. I’m aware of only one statue for a woman war hero of World War II, Violette Szabo GC, and the monument on which her bust sits actually commemorates Winston Churchill’s Special Operations Executive, which organised agents working across enemy lines. So her face does not stand for herself, for Violette, but for the countless anonymous agents of Churchill’s ‘Secret Army’.

SEO.jpgWhen I returned home to read about the Women of World War II monument, I was even more surprised to find that while it appears there was some controversy over its erection in 2005 (someone apparently wondered why a ‘women’s memorial’ was required if there were no ‘men’s memorial’).

When representations of weapons are more visible in our civic sculpture than images of women, what futures can we hope for?

No one seems to have recognised that an object meant to honour the acts of women so consciously erases these women from public space. The ‘Women of World War II’ memorial is a memorial to the continual erasure, denial, refusal to acknowledge women as actors in our physical, social and cultural history. It memorialises a politics of the past based on ideas of aggressive masculinity, conquest and violence which reduces the lives (and deaths) of women to symbols.

What does it mean that we refuse to physically commemorate, at the public’s expense, the women who have contributed to the fabric of the cities we walk through, with their names, their bodies, their faces? What does this say about our social relationships with the past, our relationship with remembering war and trauma? That women have no past? That to represent women as actual physical beings and not generic symbols is too dangerous, too disruptive, too threatening to the historical narrative of bloody battles, guns and imperialism?

The fact that women’s bodies and names are barely represented creates a social identity where it is okay for women to be absent

When representations of weapons are more visible in our civic sculpture than images of women (who bear the brunt of ‘collateral damage’ and death in conflict zones), what futures can we hope for?

It is possible to represent the collective contributions of women without erasing their individual identities: as Susan Schwartzenberg and Cheryl Barton did it in their Rosie the Riveter memorial at the Kaiser shipyard in Richmond, California. This memorial includes the faces and words of actual women, many of whom were African American and Latina, who constructed ships during the war; it both recognises their wartime efforts and challenges and develops different ways of commemorating warfare and interacting with the past.

This is a memorial which challenges and develops different ways of commemorating warfare and interacting with the past.

The erection of symbols in someway creates and maintains a collective historical consciousness (call it civic pride, patriotism, memory, ideology or patriarchy). The fact that women’s bodies and names are barely represented creates a consciousness and a social identity where it is okay for women to be just not there. And, although Paperwomen began (and remains) a bit of a joke, this issue isn’t very funny, because it ultimately denies the presence of any body named ‘woman’ in that society.

So here’s to hoping that such a limited ideology will erode a little, along with the statues erected in honour of it.

Photo of Women of World War II monument by Rupert Ganzer, photo of Royal Tank Regiment monument by Jitze Couperus, photo of the Battle of Britain monument by Marney Reaney, photo of Violette Szabo memorial by nklajn, all shared on Flickr under a Creative Commons license

Carolyn Dougherty is a civil engineer, currently pursuing a PhD in railway studies at the University of York. Alex Wardrop lives in Bristol and is a founding member of the Paperwomen Collective

Comments From You

Georgina // Posted 17 June 2011 at 11:05 am

What a great article, I am always frustrated by the lack of representations of women and female bodies in monuments and memorials – nothing like a healthy bit of iconoclasm (Paperwomen) to draw people’s attention to it, even it it is a bit tongue in cheek! Has anyone come across Sue Malvern? She teaches History of Art at Reading University and is a general hero but has also written about Frampton’s statue of Edith Cavell (WW1 nurse working in Belgium who gave medical help to soldiers regardless of their nationality), as well as contemporary women artists who make public sculpture like Rachel Whiteread and Jenny Holzer. Not sure if I’m allowed to post a link but google her!

hannah // Posted 17 June 2011 at 9:18 pm

This is a great article, thank you. Talking of statues of women in public spaces, although this isn’t specifically to do with WWII, you might like to have a look at what is possibly my favourite statue, the Leicester Seamstress. http://www.leicester.gov.uk/your-council-services/lc/growth-and-history/statuesandsculpture/seamstress/

When I first saw it on a visit to my brother, who has just finished a degree at the university, I felt quite touched and a little bit proud, but wasn’t sure why at the time. Later, I realised that the reason statue had such an impact on me was because, as you say, there are so few statues of women in public places. I’m talking about ones that commemorate our achievements and contributions, of course, ones where we have our clothes on.

I’m never more aware of or more irritated by this huge discrepancy between public commemoration of men and women than when I arrive into Leeds station and walk across the city square. There are men on plinths in eighteenth century dress, confidently posed, with plaques below describing their successes. The square is bordered by what wikipedia tells me are eight ‘nymphs’, i.e. skinny young women with perky breasts and genitals neatly concealed (no pubic hair, these are tasteful and ‘classical’). To paraphrase the Guerilla Girls, do women have to be naked to get into city squares?

I feel slightly ambivalent about the Seamstress for the same reasons you pick up on in the WWII Women memorial. Is it really an acceptable way to acknowledge women’s contribution to history and our collective achievements by erasing our individual identities; depicting us as empty clothes, or an anonymous ‘Everywoman’?

It’s interesting that the WWII memorial moves away from the Everywoman idea in the Seamstress (and the Szabo bust you posted). Even though the WWII statue seems to commits the time-honoured feminist fail of reducing women to their clothes, I wonder if there’s also a hint of apologetic self-awareness in the emptiness of their outfits, as if it’s saying that our failure to adequately memorialise them in history books and public monuments, can never be fully compensated for, at least in one statue.

Thanks for your article again, it was a really interesting read and sparked off a lot of thoughts. And thanks for drawing my attention to the excellent Paperwomen project! (just a quick note, the link to their site is broken and ends .com not .org)

carolynd // Posted 18 June 2011 at 10:36 pm

Thank you both Georgina and Hannah for mentioning people and things I haven’t yet encountered. I’ll look up Sue Malvern; I’m interested in what she has to say about the Edith Cavell memorial, which I think is great. And I have to say I think the Seamstress is charming (I’ve never been to Leicester, so hadn’t run across it before), but it is frustrating that it’s yet another Everywoman (and that even Violette Szabo, an actual person, is cast as ‘everywoman’ in the memorial in which she appears). And you know what, I go to Leeds all the time (am going tomorrow morning, in fact) but have never noticed what you pointed out! I’ll be sure to give myself enough time to look tomorrow. I wish you were right about the WWII women’s memorial being an ironic comment about the absence of women, but I somehow doubt it, alas.

louise // Posted 21 June 2011 at 10:44 am

In Liverpool Anglican cathedral there is a panel of 23 stained glass windows commemorating women. They are known as the ‘Noble Women’ windows, and commemorate a wide range of women, not just the high-born. They were installed in 1910 and were paid for by members of the Liverpool Diocesan Girls Friendly Society with £200 that they raised. I always feel quite emotional when I see them.


Mary Warren // Posted 22 June 2011 at 10:33 am

Ok this is my first post!

The imbalance in todays society is nothing like what the monuments represent, that women have no ‘significant’ place place in society. It seems like to bother with highlighting women’s part in history is either irrelevant or would be relevant to point out how society was sexist. Plus I don’t think there should be monuments of war anyway, to celebrate it?! I get in respect for the dead or as a part of history, but in both of those there would be no point in bringing what’s remembered of women to the front when a point of feminism is that they were at the back and they shouldn’t have been at the back. If that makes sense… I mean with the clothes, there is no one in society now that actually expects and sees women like that metaphor thing I swear, the imbalance is a whole different story stemming from it.

Fran // Posted 22 June 2011 at 4:44 pm

As I remember from the time, the stated purpose of the memorial was because women stepped forward and took on those clothes for the duration, and it represented them taking on traditional male roles especially on the home front. It was also meant to point out that their greatest sacrifice was stepping back afterwards, leaving the clothes empty for the men to have the jobs back. A point, albeit not very well made.

(It isn’t just women, btw – my father was conscripted when he left secondary school and sent to work in the local coal mine. Men who were sent to work in mines, shipyards, factories etc. were called “Bevan’s Boys”, and it was thought they had a cushy option – even though many of them were killed or seriously injured. It’s only in the past few years they have been allowed representation in the Remembrance Day parade.)

Linda MacDonald // Posted 25 June 2011 at 4:02 pm

I love it anytime the presence of women of the world is made visible in some concrete sense, such as a statue. There is an important statue in Ottawa, Canada with a wonderful British connection. In 1927 a group of five women, now known as The Famous Five, wanted to open the Senate of Canada to allow women to be appointed to this body. They petitioned the Supreme Court of Canada, under Section 24 of the British North America Act, asking whether the meaning of the word “persons” in the Act would include female persons. Six weeks later the judges decision was an emphatic no. These courageous five women, with the support of some men, did not stop there. They marched onward to London, England appealing to the highest Court of Appeal in Canada at that time…the Judicial Committee of England’s Privy Council. On October 18, 1929 five British Lords agreed unanimously that the word “persons” meant persons of both the female and male sex. Their opinion on excluding Canadian women from public office was that the Canadian Supreme Court decision … “was a relic of days more barbarous than ours”

In the present day I, along with a colleague Jeanne Sarson, have included a photo of the two us standing next to The Famous Five Statue as the main image of our website homepage about non-state torture (NST) – http://nonstatetorture.org The 1929 newspaper held by Nellie McClung says Women are Persons. And that is the essence of our work with women who have survived non-state torture, or torture that occurs at the hands of private citizens such as parents, spouses, other kin or human traffickers. We are lobbying for legislative changes in Canada which we hope will spread around the world. We will be speaking at Middlesex University in London in September and I will look for the WW11 women’s statue then.

in solidarity across the ocean- relational feminist, ~Linda MacDonald~

Anathas010 // Posted 29 June 2011 at 5:58 pm

I don’t mean to be objectionable on this one but perhaps the reason that there are all statues of men from world war two is that it was almost all men who fought and died in defense of their familes and homeland?

Alex W // Posted 30 June 2011 at 8:17 am

Really love all the comments, criticisms (esp. regarding intentions of Mall sculpture and other readings of it!) developments, personal stories- Thank you! Linda thank you for the image of Nellie (my new favourite picture!). If anyone wants to continue writing/thinking about ideas brought up through this piece feel free to email Paper Women and we’ll put it on blog (pictures too!) http://paperwomen.blogspot.com/

Finally, massive thanks to Jess for helping Carolyn and I with this piece!

ps I now want to go to Leeds!


Anathas010 // Posted 30 June 2011 at 10:41 am

Very interesting article.

Isn’t the reason that there aren’t that many statues of women is that statues are errected of people who did very public things that captured the imagination of the people? Because of the traditional male role of the past – which was to perform perform perform, in order to succeed succeed suceed and hence win love and approval, it just so happens that men did more stuff like this and therefore such statues are more often of men.

Women had less need to win noteriety as they gained love and acceptance from society for fullfilling the traditional female role – ie being wives and mothers. Extremely noble, incredibly well respected and to be honoured (I believe – although not the lack of choice at that time – to be clear) but just not that visible. Not that good as story fodder. That said at least some of those women who did more public deeds that captured the imagination of the people do have statues (http://www.secret-london.co.uk/Women.html)

As for war memorials, well one could say that it was because it was mostly men who died etc…, that’s one reason but actually, there is another reason, which is a bit less obvious, which is societies historical need to glamorise the role of the male going to war. If all the boys grow up thinking going to war is just plain stupid – when the time comes for war then you have a few issues. Its obviously more complex than that – people didn’t build statues thinking “that’ll get those boys itching to fight” but the whole notion of male sacrafice in war being noble is self perpetuating. Boys think it is noble, sign up, go off and see their friends get blown to smitherines, then come back and either get depressed with the whole thing OR they process it as noble male sacrafice and raise war memorials. Likewise women at home who lost loved ones – how do you process that sacrafice? Do you rail against it (some do) or do you honour it in the form of statues memorials etc….

On this particular piece of artwork I agree that it is interesting that there are no actual women but was interested to read the other commentator mention the artistic rationale for it.

Robinsong // Posted 7 January 2012 at 10:37 am

I was very interested in your article and we know that has taken and is taking a very long time to bring around correct attitudes to women. When I see this monument I see the clothes that many women had to suddenly hang up at the end of the war. These were clothes often thrust on them by war, in that single women were draughted as well as men. Obviously many many people volunteered, my Aunt, married but with no children, my Dad and his 6 brothers for instance. However my Mum was draughted even though she lived with two older disabled sisters on the other side of the country.

I don’t feel that the monument detracts in anyway from her role. I feel it shows an empty sadness that was in fact a reality for many women that they did their bit and had to melt away after, into whatever was left. So I suppose you could argue the monument is historically correct. I find it an image full of emotion and wondering

Peter // Posted 10 January 2012 at 1:39 pm

Very interesting article, though personally I’ve always found that particular memorial to be especially poignant, in that it seems to encapsuate well a sense of loss and absence. Also worth pointing out that some of the largest and most visible public statues in London are of women – the Queen Victoria memorial in front of Buckingham Palace, the statue of Winged Peace on the Quadriga at Hyde Park Corner, Boudicca on Thames Embankment, and Queen Anne in front of St Paul’s. Interestingly, all the continents personified around the Albert Memorial are women – God only knows what the symbolism is there. Of course, if you want to spread the net a bit wider, the Statue of Liberty and Venus de Milo were both public sculputures…;-)

Lionel // Posted 9 July 2012 at 6:00 pm

As a student and author of military history there is no doubt in my mind that the contribution of British women in both World Wars greatly helped Britain to win. The Government, and the willingness of the vast army of female workers, out-produced all of the other combatants, wth the exception of the USA and Russia. As an global industrial conflict the battles were less about brave strong individuals, and more about whole communities coming together to defeat a common foe. The production of war materials was the single defining factor in winning the war. This approach to success has been with us since the human species started to dominate the earth. My partner does not like the memorial for the lack of physical form. But the location and size of the monolith is, I think, a measure of the importance of the homage which the British people pay to the memory of our women. There are plenty of monuments to individual women and men which have been funded through public and private subscription, and more which should be. At least this one has been built.

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