How many statues of women are there in London?
March is International Women's Month, when we celebrate London's ladies throughout history. One good marker of how sidelined in historical discussions women have been is to count the statues we've put up to them over the years. This is only one metric, of course, but it's a telling one: statues are expensive, and someone needs to dedicate a piece of oh-so-valuable London land to one, so figuring out who gets them and who doesn't can show where the priorities of the social order lie.
In October 2021, Art UK looked over their catalogue of London's statues and memorials, and found that just 4% are dedicated to named women, as opposed to 21% for men. When we say "named women", we mean specific, real people, so no Britannias, no angels, and no personifications or allegories. Now of course, many memorials in London aren't dedicated to any named person. Take the Cenotaph on Whitehall for example, which is dedicated to "the Glorious Dead" rather than any specific person. But even when you take those out, it still only bumps the number up to 15%, with men taking a whopping 79% (the leftover 6% is memorials that are dedicated to both named men and named women).
includes singers like Amy Winehouse, philanthropists like Catherine
Booth, activists like Emmeline Pankhurst, writers like Agatha Christie,
and of course, royals, from Boudicca to Princess Diana.
Most shockingly, Art UK found there were twice as many statues of animals than those for named women.
Out of that slim percentage of women, how many do you think were named women of colour? The survey found just two:
the Crimean War nurse Mary Seacole standing outside St. Thomas'
Hospital, and the WWII secret operative Noor Inayat Khan in Gordon
Square. That means that Queen Victoria alone has seven times more statues dedicated to her (at a whopping 14) than named women of colour do across the whole of Greater London.
One does have to wonder about Art UK's dataset- seasoned Londoners might know that there are at least two more public statues of women of colour- over the entrance to Westminster Abbey. There you'll find Manche Masemola from South Africa, and Esther John from Pakistan, depicted alongside other 20th century Christian martyrs. Perhaps they weren't counted because they're on a building rather than land that's open to the public all year round?
obvious answer seems to be: well, put up more statues to women to even
things out. But that's probably not sustainable- the vast majority of
statues in London have only gone up in the last 150 years, and some
parts of the city are already, well, pretty full. Westminster Council
has declared a "Monument Saturation Zone" around St. James's and
Embankment, because statues are now so clustered that they're starting
to make weird pairings, like the Scots poet Robert Burns sitting right
by the Imperial Camel Corps.
Last year, Gary Younge, an original member of the committee that decided what would go on the Fourth Plinth, wrote in The Guardian that, in fact, we should have no statues of named individuals at all.
He argues that they are not a good way of remembering people- can you
name any occupants of the other three plinths in Trafalgar Square?- and
they they don't let us re-evaulate historic figures. They sit there,
meaning exactly what they meant when they were first put up, getting
less and less relevant until they're forgotten or quietly taken down to
make room for new building work. Getting rid of all named statues in
London would definitely make my job as a tour guide a lot harder, but
his article is really interesting and well-argued, and I recommend
giving it a read.
There's only one solution: knock down all statues of humans immediately. The animals can stay, of course.
If you would
like to see some of the few statues we have of named women, you can join
me on my Votes For Women tour! In 1890, the idea of women voting seemed
a dangerous absurdity- like a
dog riding a bike. Just thirty years later, we had our first female MP.
Find out how our courageous sisters did it in this tour through
Westminster, the heart of state power. We're going to hear about some of
their strange protests and the even stranger arguments against women getting the vote.