Sophie Campbell



Ms Fawcett holds her own

April 28, 2018
Millicent Fawcett, Parliament Square

Trust a woman to get the details right. Gillian Wearing’s bronze statue of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the suffragist and women’s campaigner, was unveiled this week as the twelfth and only female statue in Parliament Square.

Seen from a distance, she more than holds her own against the male statues – Churchill in his billowing coat, Lincoln standing by his chair, Mandela in his Madiba shirt. She also holds a sign. It reads ‘Courage calls to courage everywhere’, a phrase she adopted after the death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison at the Derby.

Get close, though, and you can see the slight dimpling on the letters, obviously hand-stitched onto a piece of cotton or canvas. They must be leather. The hands that hold the banner are small and well-kept, the face with its matter-of-fact swept-back hair strong and pleasingly lined. It looks quietly, implacably determined.

Courage banner

The jacket of her checked tweed suit is pinned with a suffragist badge. Its top button pulls to the edge of its buttonhole, as buttons do, and the delicately scalloped collar of her blouse collar is uneven. The skirt is long and heavy, so thick it must have weighed her down, and her leather boots are incredibly sturdy.

Fawcett, who co-founded Newnham College, Cambridge and made women’s education her life’s work, was a member of the intelligentsia. She was born in Suffolk, lived in Bloomsbury and her older sister (who has no London statue, although she has a Blue Plaque and an obstetrics hospital named after her) was Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman in Britain to qualify as a doctor.

Millicent married Henry Fawcett, the blind economist, supporter of women’s suffrage and later Postmaster General, whose memorial is in Embankment Gardens. There’s a Ford Madox Ford portrait of the couple in the Votes for Women: Pioneers currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery until December 2018.

Their daughter, Philippa, a brilliant mathematician who out-performed the senior wrangler (the top scorer in the mathematics Tripos at Cambridge) but couldn’t take the title, being female, went on to research and lecture at Newnham and became a noted educationalist.


The Fawcetts by Ford Madox Ford ©NPG London

This must be one of the few works Gillian Wearing has done when the subject has not been a conscious participant. The artist often uses video or photography to explore the gap between public perception and private reality. Somehow she’s managed that here, in dignified bronze – which is like, and yet nothing like, the men.

So there she is, Millicent Fawcett, an incredibly impressive woman, sculpted by another incredibly impressive woman, thanks to the very impressive writer and campaigner Caroline Criado Perez, who got 85,000 people to support the idea (and, by the way, got Jane Austen onto the tenner).

When you do go, get up really close. Around the bottom is a truly Wearing-esque touch: a quietly subversive strip of photographs, some of them blanks because no image exists, of the many women who, however impressive, never made it to a plinth in Parliament Square.


The other women on Parliament Square

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