And she thought: “But they are all men!”

The Observer profiles the admirable Caroline Criado-Perez:

Two years ago, a young woman was running through London with her dog. Her route took her through Parliament Square, with the monuments of the establishment on all sides – legislature to the east, executive offices to the north, judiciary to the west and the church to the south. She ran past the bronze statues that lined her route, towering above her on their plinths: Nelson Mandela, Robert Peel, Disraeli, Edward Smith-Standley, Palmerston, Jan Smuts, David Lloyd George and the bronze of Winston Churchill. And she thought: “But they are all men!”

And because it was 8 March, International Women’s Day, and because the woman was the unstoppable feminist activist and campaigner Caroline Criado-Perezwho put Jane Austen on our £10 notes and for whom thinking and acting go hand in hand, an idea was born. And because Caroline Criado-Perez has a nature that is generously impulsive and also energetic, steadfast and remarkably tenacious, that idea has now been translated into a solid form. On 24 April Gillian Wearing’s statue of the suffragist Millicent Fawcett will be unveiled, to stand her ground among the group of men.

The algorithm that chooses ads gave me a somewhat telling one.


So who is Fawcett?

Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929) was Criado-Perez’s choice. She was a feminist, an intellectual, a political and union leader, and above all, a tireless lifelong campaigner for women to have the vote. Everyone’s heard of the Pankhursts – and Emmeline Pankhurst already has a statue just a stone’s throw from where we are sitting. “I wanted a woman without a statue – and she had been there from the very start.” Fawcett was just 19 when she organised petitions for women’s suffrage – too young to sign it herself. She went on to become the president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. “If a man had done all she had done, there would be hundreds of statues to him.” It was also Criado-Perez’s decision how the suffragist would be portrayed. “I wanted her to be like the men she is with, not young and nubile.” Gillian Wearing’s Millicent Fawcett is 50, with a wrinkled face; her gaze is stern; she is a figure of authority. She holds a banner inscribed with the words: “Courage calls to courage everywhere.”

To be memorialised like this is no small thing; to place a female statue in a place that was for so many centuries a bastion of male power is a powerful gesture of defiance and revision. Criado-Perez has a genius for seeing things that the rest of us miss, and for bringing invisible women out of the shadows, directing our attention to history’s forgotten narratives. She has an unerring, unnerving sense of social and cultural blind spots and recognises absence, the space between the lines. For decades, for instance, I’ve seen these bronze statesmen in Parliament Square but not really seen them, just as I handled banknotes without really noticing what was on them (the faces of white men). We live in a world in which men are the default humans; we don’t realise women aren’t there because they’ve always been not-there and we’ve never known anything different.

I notice it constantly in media, but money and statues, true, not so much.

Symbols are not just symbols; this statue is not just a statue. It connects to the way we see ourselves in the world. By Criado-Perez’s rough calculation, less than 3% of public statues are of women – and of those, most are abstract, anonymous and very often naked. She shows me one of her favourite examples – a bust of the composer Arthur Sullivan, imposing on a tall pedestal; beneath him, leaning against the pedestal for support, is the muse of music, so distraught that most of her clothes are falling off. “Man and muse,” says Criado-Perez, wrinkling her nose in disgust. Representation, she says, “is what gets me worked up. It’s important. It’s about how women are valued and it is central to the discussion: if our stories are not told, then the governments making policy don’t think about us. And if women don’t see themselves represented then they don’t properly value themselves.”

And they think, without even realizing they think it, that women are…an afterthought, an also-ran, a second-best, a beside the point. We don’t notice what we’ve always seen and not seen, unless we know to make the effort to notice it. Habituation is powerful.

Criado-Perez came to feminism relatively late – and she came to it swiftly, as if without realising it she had been waiting for the moment, one turn of the dial, when her life would come into focus and she could see what had always been there. It was a book by the linguist Deborah Cameron that opened her eyes – or rather, a single paragraph of that book, in which Cameron discusses how the word “man” is used as the default for “human” and how this means that when women hear the word, they automatically and unconsciously see a male figure. So lawyers are men, doctors are men, philosophers and artists and professors are men. “And I thought, that’s what I do! Not questioning; always picturing men. I grew up with all those men in my head.” She acknowledges they are hard to get rid of (“say the word genius and who do I picture? Einstein!”) but at least she is now aware of them.

Deborah Cameron, like CCP, is stupendous.

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