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Westminster’s “white” and “male” art reflects its inhabitants

Time for female MPs to be able to see themselves on the walls: the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Women in Parliament condemns “off-putting” Westminster art.

It's time for women to be able to see themselves on the walls. Photo: Hulton Archive, Getty Images
It's time for women to be able to see themselves on the walls. Photo: Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In Westminster rows and rows of white men in suits clutch papers and survey their peers. Above them, lining the walls, are more. The parliamentary art collection is made up of more than 2,000 works and yet only a pitiful number depict women. The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Women in Parliament has released a report that states the art in Westminster is too “white and male” and therefore “off-putting” to female speakers and visitors. Although the intimidation caused by the very place – its name synonymous with oak panels, neo-gothic architecture and men shouting over each other – goes beyond the art and into the culture surrounding it, taking issue with the featured art for being overwhelmingly white and male is valid.

Of the ten-person Committee for Parliamentary Art only two are women. Of the works highlighted on their website (in case you get your kicks by scrolling through black and white sketches of Rt. Hons) only 16 per cent  feature a woman. Even this statistic is skewed by the number of statues of Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria, which gives me flashbacks to the hellish arguments made by trolls to activist Caroline Criado-Perez last year when she complained about the Royal Bank of England’s plans to replace the figure of Elizabeth Fry on its £5 note with Winston Churchill. When trolls across the land yelled “but the queen is a woman! And she’s on every note!” they conveniently ignored the fact that she didn’t have to be elected, and she would have been on her legal tender regardless of her gender or achievements. From last year’s public outcry at the Bank of England, to these statements about the intimidating environment of Westminster, the damning message is still clear: women are not considered to have done anything of enough importance to appear in the hallowed symbols of finance or politics.

It’s not just the paintings but the architecture which is designed to intimidate those who are not familiar with working in an environment of carved stone and freshly polished marble. Those who have not been to older universities who boast these same accolades – namely the Oxbridge colleges who continue to anger their Access Officers by maintaining their wine cellars, chandeliers and gowns – are inevitably going to feel out of place when speaking in the prestigious hall. One of the fundamental jobs of politicians is to stand for their constituents, not matter what their gender or social standing, and half of the population deserve to be able to see themselves and their interests represented in parliament. To further social mobility and to come anywhere closer to reaching an equal number of female and male MPs, Westminster needs to recognise that it does not exist in vacuum devoid of context (although an argument in favour of this writes itself) .

Diane Abbott, Margaret Thatcher and Emmeline Pankhurst are all so varied they shouldn’t be grouped together by their one unifying achievement of having a drawing of them hung up somewhere in the Houses of Parliament. Or, as outlined last week in the New Statesman, the fact that they are all far more likely than their male counterparts to be attacked in the press. The news today that the Tories are launching female only MP shortlists bringing to mind Yvette Cooper’s remark that in regards to the Prime Minister’s “real blind spot” over female candidates this is “too little, too late” (of the total of female seats from 1918-2013, 60.7 per cent of the female positions were with Labour, showing that this “blindspot” is not unfounded)  That quotas need to exist highlights the drastic nature of the steps that need to be made in parliament in order to ensure there are more female seats from the current 147 female out of 650 MPs (23 per cent of the total). The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Women in Parliament statement calling for a “gender audit” of art and sculpture is a call for the future instead of being stuck in the white, patriarchal dominated government past and present.

To people who ask “why are female MPs across parties complaining about the furnishings of Westminster, don’t they have better things to do with their time?”, here’s my response. Parliament is not a hallowed place which needs to preserve the outdated ideas of the past. We have museums and galleries aplenty which are filled with images of white men but parliament is a working building and as a symbol of UK politics as a whole it has a duty to reflect the attitudes and concerns of society as whole. Women are people, half of society moreover, and they need to be represented in parliament. To look at a wall in Westminster and not see a single painting of a woman is a clear message: you don’t belong here. If we change these faces on the walls then we’re one step from changing the faces in the seats too.