Monumental Lessons

Historic Parliament Square in London pays homage to 11 male statues—mostly white, middle-aged, male aristocrats—but now, after nearly 200 years, the first female figure stands among them.

Hundreds of people, including Prime Minister Theresa May, attended the unveiling of the statue, which depicts Millicent Fawcett, a somewhat unsung figure of the feminist movement that led the campaign for women’s enfranchisement. Her statue was installed in part to celebrate the centenary of women’s suffrage in Britain this year. The petition to have female representation in Parliament Square was begun by Carolyn Criado-Perez, a freelance writer who had previously (and successfully!) campaigned for an image of Jane Austen to appear on the British £10 pound note—an endeavor that quickly made Criado-Perez the target of online vitriol.

Millicent Fawcett was the leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, the main suffragist organization in Britain and a nonviolent movement. The choice of Fawcett–rather than the better known but more militant Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia—was deliberate.

Many women had been radicalized on “Black Friday” in 1910, after the then Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, called in riot police when 300 women attempted to enter Parliament to argue peacefully for their rights. After the ensuing mayhem, the government tried to cover up evidence of police brutality and serious physical assaults on the women, but the damage was done. It was under Pankhurst leadership, which split from the mainstream movement to form the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), that women held sit-ins and barricaded themselves at men’s clubs, disrupted men’s meetings, crashed royal garden parties and horse races. They escalated to flinging bricks through shop windows, and even to the use of bombs and arson, targeting homes of particularly anti-female-suffrage members of Parliament. They also paid dearly for their actions, by beatings (both domestic and official), imprisonment, and, when they went on hunger strike while in jail, by brutal forced feeding. Some women died.

Polite reformers are always celebrated earlier then impolite ones, and by the time the latter are honored—for example, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X—it’s been hoped by those in power that time will have buffed the sharp edges of their activism, their years in jail, their calls for disrupting the entire system, and often their tragic martyrdom. Only then are they considered sufficiently safe (over the remaining objections, to be sure) to have holidays named after them or have postage stamps wear their faces.

Certainly Millicent Fawcett deserves to be honored, and it’s good to have a woman, however much a token, in Parliament Square; you have to start somewhere. But one statue of one woman misinforms us. It not only fails to educate us; it actually mis-educates. Not all women won the right to vote when the Representation of the People Act finally passed on February 6, 1918. That law conferred eligibility only on women age 30 and older who owned or occupied property worth more than £5. That small victory was the culmination of years of peaceful marching and campaigning and and of militancy combined. It would take another decade before Britain extended the vote to all women age 21 and over.

Change does come, but slowly and with great reluctance. The Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Statue Fund Inc. is still fundraising and advocating to place a statue of the two women’s rights pioneers in New York City’s Central Park, where there are 23 statues honoring men and none honoring real women. No, Alice in Wonderland, angels, and mermaids don’t count.

This got me thinking about the way statuary not only reflects our values but shapes them, the way monuments can mis-educate us, sometimes deliberately. All those heroic statues to soldiers and sailors from world wars, the plethora of “greatest generation” propaganda, came screeching up against the reality of profound loss when a young woman, a design artist and architect named Maya Lin, created the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC. Quiet, heavy, black, somber, reflective. But the names—the thousands of names. And interactive, so families could find the specific name that would never again answer to their call, find the name and make a rubbing of it.

That taught a lesson different from the glory of war.

And I thought of today’s still-raw controversy about “heritage”: the marble and stone Confederacy generals mounted gallantly astride their rearing warhorses, representing the treasonous rebellion of the Old South and its “gracious, civilized ways,” branding the myth of that message over and over on the conscious and subconscious minds of every passerby, every viewer. And with each branding, erasing the memory of human agony forced to make that so-called civilization possible.

Now, a new memorial and museum in Montgomery, Alabama, hopes to teach another lesson. It was inspired by both the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which overlooks the Alabama state capital, is dedicated to the victims of American white supremacy. It demands a reckoning with one of this nation’s least recognized atrocities, the lynching of thousands of black people in a post-Civil War decades-long campaign of racist terror.

And again: the names. The specific human being, the individual suffering. Only one example here. Mary Turner.

Mary Turner, who in an act of unthinkable courage maddened by grief denounced her husband’s lynching by a raging white mob, and was then herself hung upside down, burned, and sliced open so that her unborn child fell to the ground.

The magnitude of the killing stuns. The scale is made palpable by an outdoor cloister, a walkway with 800 weathered steel columns hanging from a roof. Etched on each column is the name of an American county and the women, men, and children lynched there, most listed by name, but many simply as “unknown.” The columns meet a visitor first at eye-level, like headstones that lynching victims were rarely given. But the floor descends steadily and by the end, columns dangle above, leaving the visitor in the position of spectators in old photographs of public lynchings, spectators gaping up at what they see. When it rains, the rain water sliding along the columns turns copper colored, and drips off the columns. This moves beyond metaphor. No structure could educate more plainly.

If statues must be built at all—and I myself would prefer trees—then they should be built by such artists as Maya Lin and the architects and artists commissioned by the Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit NGO that was the visionary and the persistent energy behind creating this new Alabama memorial. They should teach us the whole truth. They should thaw our hearts from stone.