Leader: The voice of courage cannot be denied

This week saw the first statue of a woman unveiled outside parliament, remembering the suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett.

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On 24 April a new statue was unveiled in Parliament Square in Westminster. It shows the suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett, holding a placard with the words she wrote after the death of Emily Wilding Davison in the 1913 Derby: “Courage calls to courage everywhere, and its voice cannot be denied.” It is the first statue of a woman to stand outside parliament, joining the 11 men already there.

The unveiling, attended by the Prime Minister, Theresa May, and the London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, follows a two-year campaign by the activist and writer Caroline Criado Perez, who previously convinced the Bank of England to put a female historical figure on our current banknotes alongside the men. For this, she received a barrage of rape and death threats.

Fawcett was chosen because of her leadership of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, which – unlike the Pankhursts and the militants of the Women’s Social and Political Union – used peaceful methods to campaign for the vote. She was a remarkable woman. She campaigned against the Contagious Diseases Act, which allowed poor women to be locked up on the suspicion that they were prostitutes and subjected to humiliating medical tests. She co-founded Newnham College, Cambridge, to allow women to study for degrees – although the university would not award them until 1948. She investigated reports of concentration camps in South Africa during the Boer War. And she lived long enough to see all women get the right to vote in 1928.

Rightly, the statue in Parliament Square also commemorates 59 others – including four men – involved in the fight for universal suffrage, recognising that it was the achievement of an extraordinary generation of social reformers. To read their stories is to be reminded of the causes for which thousands of Britons fought alongside that of the vote: access to education, fairer divorce laws, the establishment of trade unions, Irish independence, vegetarianism, pacifism, vaccination, birth control and better living conditions for the poor.

A century after the first British women won the vote, the feminist movement has made impressive progress. However, the pay gap figures released earlier this year, which showed that eight in ten companies pay women less than men, are just the latest reminder that equality has not yet been achieved. Women still make up only a third of MPs. Funding for domestic violence refuges is once more under threat (something that should deeply concern Mrs May, who considers herself a feminist). Universal credit, which is paid to the head of the household rather than to individual claimants, is a retrograde step that makes it harder for women to maintain financial independence – overturning Barbara Castle’s dictum that some benefits should go into the purse, not the wallet.

The unveiling of Fawcett’s statue is a chance to remember that the fight for equality never ends, but that each victory builds on the last. In 1892, she wrote: “It cannot for a moment be doubted that the possession of parliamentary representation would immensely strengthen the position of women industrially.” She was right. Brava, Millicent Garrett Fawcett. And brava, Caroline Criado Perez. 

This article appears in the 27 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum