As the first woman to represent my constituency of Midlothian at Westminster, you would expect me to feel proud and emotional at the unveiling of the amazing Millicent Fawcett statue by Gillian Wearing. The first statue of a woman, and by a woman artist in Parliament square.
Well yes, I am proud, but I’m also very angry.
I’m angry because it has taken so long to have a woman recognised in Parliament Square, and that still only around 3% of statues in the UK are of women.
There is a statue of a woman in one of my local libraries. I was curious and asked the librarian who she was – hoping I had found a local inventor, perhaps the woman who founded the library, or a local hero I hadn’t heard of before! The librarian told me the woman, known locally as Shona, was rumoured to have had an affair with the artist. Not quite the discovery I was hoping for…
I got even angrier when our Prime Minister, Theresa May, spoke at the unveiling of the statue. She opened her speech by talking about all the great men that we have statues of in Parliament Square, then going on to say that it’s fitting and right that there is now a woman joining them. We have heard more than enough about the statues to the men in the square, great men that they were – but that was not the point of this unveiling. The celebrations around this statue should be all about celebrating the achievements and strength of women like Millicent Fawcett.
However, the straw that broke the camel’s back for me was that Theresa May stood up and talked about women’s equality when it is her abhorrent policies, austerity, pension inequality and welfare reform - such as the rape clause - that are holding women back and affecting their lives today.
We know that austerity hits women hardest and fastest in the UK. I can see this clearly in my constituency, where the number of women claiming Universal Credit is rising much more steeply than the number of male claimants. I recently met with Dalkeith Women’s Aid who told me about the horrendous effects of austerity that they see on the women they support.
Tragically, when it comes to Universal Credit, despite her platitudes when talking about gender equality, Theresa May and her Government have consistently refused to apply split payments to the new benefit, destroying hard-fought gains by women for financial independence from men. This is a move condemned by women’s charities and those fighting against domestic abuse.
I wonder what Jessie Craigen would have thought of Theresa May’s speech, about her policies that hit working class women the hardest?
‘Who is Jessie Craigen?’, you might ask.
Jessie Craigen was a working class suffragist. There are no photos of her; she has had to be immortalised by the inclusion of just her name on the Millicent Fawcett plinth, rather than have her face added to the faces of people of the suffrage movement. However, I am so very happy that a working class woman has been included in this important public art. Women are overlooked from history, yes, but working class women’s achievements are even more airbrushed out of our textbooks and museums.
Some reading this might think this is time to celebrate this art, not to make a political point. But while women are being held back by this Tory Government, it was always going to be political and I make no apologies for that.
This week the Government celebrated the royal baby - a third child in a family. But at the same time as they cap benefits to the third child in hard-working families across our country, I find it hard to join in with the Government’s hypocritical celebrations. This was very eloquently put by Alison Thewlis MP:
Gender inequality is still a blight on our society, and I will do all I can as an MP to put an end to it. That is why I’m organising a women’s conference in my constituency next month. I aim to bring women’s voices together to look at what barriers women face, what is holding us back, and to celebrate the amazing things that women are doing in society.
Yes, we must celebrate this fantastic public art and the achievements of women. But we must also continue the fight. Fight as Jessie Craigen fought, as Millicent Fawcett fought, as thousands of other nameless women before us fought.
We must truly honour and keep up the work of those who came before us by speaking up until women are equal - all women.
Danielle Rowley is the Labour MP for Midlothian