A few years ago, I had the honour of celebrating the arrival of Mahatma Gandhi’s statue in Parliament Square to stand alongside Nelson Mandela. And today it’s wonderful to be welcoming Millicent Fawcett, another giant of the 20th Century and campaigner for equal rights, to the home of our democracy.
Like them, Millicent Fawcett’s legacy transcends time. Almost 90 years after her death, she remains an inspirational figure, not only to the suffrage movement but a true role model to us all.
Gillian Wearing’s landmark statue shows her aged 50, holding a placard which reads ‘courage calls to courage everywhere’, in tribute to the bravery of suffragette Emily Davison. By then she had been campaigning peacefully for over 30 years in a remarkable career that spanned a further 30, taking in her passion for education and support for worker rights, drives against slavery as well as the fight to win women the right to vote for who represented them in Parliament.
Millicent said she’d had extraordinary good luck in having seen the struggle from the beginning. She heard John Stuart Mill introduce his suffrage amendment to the Reform Bill of 1867 and was still alive in 1928 when Parliament changed the law to give women full electoral equality with men.
In the general election held the following year, women made up the majority of the electorate. But just seven female MPs were returned to the House. And the fact remains that between 1918 with the passing of the Representation of the People Act and today, only 489 women have been elected. Indeed up until 18 months ago there had been fewer women MPs ever than there were men sitting in the House of Commons at any one time.
The last general election saw a record number of women returned to Parliament. Welcome progress, but clearly not enough and Dame Millicent will be keeping a watchful eye over us from across the square urging us to do more.
That’s why statues are important. As we have witnessed in passionate debate across the country, people really do care about who we once were as a nation and what we stand for now. Existing statues often present a stark reminder of our often turbulent and difficult past, of once commonly held beliefs, which centuries on are completely at odds with who we are today.
Statues allow us to remember history but they are not simply of the past. Their very presence holds us to account and spurs us on to act. Opposite the Palace of Westminster, Parliament Square is our nation’s place for demonstration and protest, but it is also at the centre of one of our capitals and indeed the world’s leading tourist attractions.
In many countries, it remains difficult for women to exercise their right to vote. I’m proud to have helped make her statue a reality that will inspire a new generation to champion her struggle for equality and women’s rights both here and abroad.
We each owe a huge debt of gratitude to the resolute, courageous, pioneering women like Millicent Fawcett who fought for equality a century ago and who like the two men stood alongside her, continue to inspire campaigners here in Britain and throughout the world.
Sajid Javid is Secretary of State for Housing, Communities & Local Government and Conservative MP for Bromsgrove