Caroline Criado Perez: How I put a suffragist in Parliament Square

She got hate mail for putting Jane Austen on our banknotes. Now, the activist has put a statue of Millicent Fawcett in central London

Two years ago, a young woman was running through London with her dog. Her route took her through Parliament Square, with the monuments of the establishment on all sides – legislature to the east, executive offices to the north, judiciary to the west and the church to the south. She ran past the bronze statues that lined her route, towering above her on their plinths: Nelson Mandela, Robert Peel, Disraeli, Edward Smith-Standley, Palmerston, Jan Smuts, David Lloyd George and the bronze of Winston Churchill. And she thought: “But they are all men!”

And because it was 8 March, International Women’s Day, and because the woman was the unstoppable feminist activist and campaigner Caroline Criado Perez, who put Jane Austen on our £10 notes and for whom thinking and acting go hand in hand, an idea was born. And because Caroline Criado Perez has a nature that is generously impulsive and also energetic, steadfast and remarkably tenacious, that idea has now been translated into a solid form. On 24 April Gillian Wearing’s statue of the suffragist Millicent Fawcett will be unveiled, to stand her ground among the group of men.

I meet Caroline Criado Perez in Parliament Square, underneath the massive and beetle-browed Winston Churchill. At the other end of the square is a white tent where the new statue will shortly be installed. She comes towards me, hot from her run here, wearing running trousers and a sleeveless pink top, her rich fall of hair tied back from her face, a small dog at her heels. She looks strong and vigorous; her expression is alert, both friendly and watchful, and she is immediately likable – serious but never solemn, ardent but never pompous or self-righteous. As we talk, I am struck by how there is a willed vulnerability and optimism to her: still in her early 30s, she has been attacked and vilified and derided since the banknote brouhaha, and yet she remains open, undefensive, curious, and willing to step into the firing line once more. Her feminism and activism are her life, not her job; she has not professionalised her passion, and perhaps that is why she is so blazingly successful in bringing change. Her dog – a puppyish, patchwork Jack Russell cross called Poppy, is all bounce and expressive silky ears, who disarms the tourists and allows shy children to stroke her.

“I really did not want another campaign,” she says. “A campaign takes over your life. It takes so much time.” She already knew about the hours and days spent writing letters, emails, tweets; making phone calls; dealing with bureaucracy – the mundane grind behind the headlines. “So I didn’t take this on lightly. But there has to be a moment where you lose your mind for a second.” When she saw all the imposing male statues, so sure of themselves (statues almost invariably take themselves seriously), she thought “Why on earth? I can’t live in a world where such stupidity continues.” And so, although she “vaguely hoped someone else would take it up”, she was writing the campaign text in her head by the time she reached St James’s Park. When her open letter to the mayor, Sadiq Khan, was published in the Telegraph in May 2016, calling on him to honour his promise to be a “proud feminist”, with signatories including JK Rowling and Emma Watson, 85,000 people had already signed the petition. And although it’s taken so much time and energy and sheer slog, she says that “it never occurred to me it wouldn’t happen. Of course it would. Maybe that’s the only way these things can work: you go in brooking no dissent.”

Gillian Wearing with a model of her sculpture of suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett.
Gillian Wearing with a model of her sculpture of suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett. Photograph: Caroline Teo/GLA/PA

Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929) was Criado Perez’s choice. She was a feminist, an intellectual, a political and union leader, and above all, a tireless lifelong campaigner for women to have the vote. Everyone’s heard of the Pankhursts – and Emmeline Pankhurst already has a statue just a stone’s throw from where we are sitting. “I wanted a woman without a statue – and she had been there from the very start.” Fawcett was just 19 when she organised petitions for women’s suffrage – too young to sign it herself. She went on to become the president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. “If a man had done all she had done, there would be hundreds of statues to him.” It was also Criado Perez’s decision how the suffragist would be portrayed. “I wanted her to be like the men she is with, not young and nubile.” Gillian Wearing’s Millicent Fawcett is 50, with a wrinkled face; her gaze is stern; she is a figure of authority. She holds a banner inscribed with the words: “Courage calls to courage everywhere.”

The plinth on which she stands bears the names and carved portraits of 59 women and men who fought for women’s suffrage. The name of one woman, poor and working class, has no likeness beside it. She never had her photograph taken and there is a blank where her face should be. “It makes me cry,” says Criado Perez. “That woman would never have imagined she would be remembered like this.” She has cried many times, too, at seeing Wearing’s Millicent Fawcett: “She saw it; saw what I was trying to do.”

To be memorialised like this is no small thing; to place a female statue in a place that was for so many centuries a bastion of male power is a powerful gesture of defiance and revision. Criado Perez has a genius for seeing things that the rest of us miss, and for bringing invisible women out of the shadows, directing our attention to history’s forgotten narratives. She has an unerring, unnerving sense of social and cultural blind spots and recognises absence, the space between the lines. For decades, for instance, I’ve seen these bronze statesmen in Parliament Square but not really seen them, just as I handled banknotes without really noticing what was on them (the faces of white men). We live in a world in which men are the default humans; we don’t realise women aren’t there because they’ve always been not-there and we’ve never known anything different.

Symbols are not just symbols; this statue is not just a statue. It connects to the way we see ourselves in the world. By Criado Perez’s rough calculation, less than 3% of public statues are of women – and of those, most are abstract, anonymous and very often naked. She shows me one of her favourite examples – a bust of the composer Arthur Sullivan, imposing on a tall pedestal; beneath him, leaning against the pedestal for support, is the muse of music, so distraught that most of her clothes are falling off. “Man and muse,” says Criado Perez, wrinkling her nose in disgust. Representation, she says, “is what gets me worked up. It’s important. It’s about how women are valued and it is central to the discussion: if our stories are not told, then the governments making policy don’t think about us. And if women don’t see themselves represented then they don’t properly value themselves.”

“I know this from personal experience,” she continues. “When I was growing up, I was not a feminist. Rather, I thought of myself as not like other girls – and that was a badge of honour.” She laughs in incredulity at her gulled past self. “How terrible is that!” It was, she says, a very stressful position to maintain: every time she met someone new, she had to prove all over again that she was not the same as other women – and her group of friends did the same. “We all thought we were different; we all bought into that male narrative.” It didn’t help that it was the 90s, a lad-heavy culture where “feminism was derided as idiotic”, where women were thought of as “a bit stupid, overemotional, hysterical, lacking, not worthy of respect”. And perhaps it didn’t help that her Argentinian father was definitely “the head of the family” whose job took them all over the world, while her mother – an adventurer at heart, a “natural feminist” – gave up her own career to follow him and bring up the family, to be the “caretaker and the cleaner”. (Later, divorced and heartbroken, she reinvented herself and now works for Medécins sans Frontières in Nigeria – “remarkable”, says her daughter proudly, “amazing”.)

So Criado Perez came to feminism relatively late – and she came to it swiftly, as if without realising it she had been waiting for the moment, one turn of the dial, when her life would come into focus and she could see what had always been there. It was a book by the linguist Deborah Cameron that opened her eyes – or rather, a single paragraph of that book, in which Cameron discusses how the word “man” is used as the default for “human” and how this means that when women hear the word, they automatically and unconsciously see a male figure. So lawyers are men, doctors are men, philosophers and artists and professors are men. “And I thought, that’s what I do! Not questioning; always picturing men. I grew up with all those men in my head.” She acknowledges they are hard to get rid of (“say the word genius and who do I picture? Einstein!”) but at least she is now aware of them.

She thinks that perhaps she finds representation such a potent subject because of the way she came to feminism. Jane Austen is just one example. In 2012, she and Catherine Smith founded the website the Women’s Room after hearing only male experts interviewed on consecutive days on the Today programme about teenage pregnancies and breast cancer. The website collects female professionals who are available for interview and seeks to counter the narrow selection of voices in public debates. “These voice are shaping the debate, and they therefore wield a huge influence over our currently populist public policy,” Criado Perez wrote in the Guardian in November 2012. “If public policy is going to be so responsive to the media, let’s make the media truly representative of the public.”

In her book on the gender data gap that she is in the process of editing (working title The Other Half), she explores how representation – and lack of representation – works its way into daily life, and has tangible effects on policy and on women’s lives. “Take medicine,” she says. The female body has been ignored by scientists, so that we are only now beginning to understand that autism manifests itself differently in women, heart disease often has a different set of symptoms, depression shows up differently in a female brain. Even in animal studies, even in cell studies, it is the male that is researched and so it is the male who is correctly diagnosed and helped.

This staggering blindness to “the other half” can be seen in government policy, in urban planning, in architecture (Le Corbusier created a normative standard for the human body called “the modular man” that was then used to scale the design of many buildings), in public and private transport, in female employment and female poverty and in the way that women’s work is often unpaid, unvalued, unrecognised and discounted. Even voice automation systems, she tells me, are trained on male voices. If Alexa doesn’t understand you, try lowering your tone a bit, to sound more like a man.

Criado Perez is strong, warm, vital. She runs, used to box, is now passionate about yoga. She gives off a kind of energy and she has what Millicent Fawcett calls for on her banner: courage. That’s what it takes to embark on a campaign like this when her last battle, which won her the Liberty human rights campaigner of the year award in 2013, also made her an object of virulent hostility. It seems ludicrous that a call to have women represented on our banknotes (who could argue with so obvious a proposition?) should have provoked such an outcry, but it did: she was threatened with mutilation, rape, gang rape, death, and she became for a while the target for a kind of toxic male rage and disgust. She believes that the male rage came from a place of fear; women are challenging men’s privileges, their place in the world and their identity. Who am I, if a woman can do this too? The hundreds and thousands of messages of hate did frighten her; people were trying to find her address and track her down and they came close. “I kept thinking of Jill Dando,” she says. “I didn’t know who they were or where they were – but it only needed one person to mean it. I was scared each time I walked out of the house.”

She still gets verbally attacked – as do almost all women who are public figures on social media – but now it is “benign. Well, except of course it isn’t benign at all – but it’s not overtly threatening.” Rather, she is repeatedly undermined, called crazy, hysterical, wasting her time on issues that don’t matter. “It is wounding,” she acknowledges; “wounding on behalf of my sex, that men think so little of us. It grinds you down. And they mean it to grind you down.” But it won’t stop you? I ask. She looks amazed. “Well, of course not!” Of course it won’t. In fact, she already has another campaign up her sleeve, although she isn’t ready yet to make it public. It’s audacious, but then so is she, on behalf of us all.

Criado Perez often speaks of “we” and “they”. I ask her if this is how she sees it: as us and them? She pauses, smiles. “I should probably give you the politician’s answer,” she says. “But I suppose I do see it like that. There are wonderful men in my life. There are men who care. Maybe the ‘us’ and ‘them’ are really the people who get it and the people who don’t.”

She stands up. Poppy is tugging on the lead, pulling her away. One woman and her dog, trying to change the world. Courage calls to courage everywhere.

  • This article was amended on Monday 16 April to correct the nationality of Caroline Criado Perez’s father


Nicci Gerrard

The GuardianTramp

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