We are to have a statue of a woman in Wales at last – not a sovereign, or a symbolic or legendary woman, but a real woman, Betty Campbell, who we should look up to, both physically and metaphorically.
Not to be outdone by a woman, there’s now a campaign for a statue of Rhodri Morgan. No longlist and shortlist and ‘people’s choice’ process for this next statue of a man, though: apparently there doesn’t need to be an argument, nor popular consent that he’s worthy of memorialisation.
Not so for Megan Lloyd George, Wales’ first woman MP. She’s out. So is Lady Rhondda, campaigner for equality. We had what Mike Parker observed was a “a glorified beauty contest” and we’ve got our woman. Now back to the men.
This statue of Betty Campbell, chosen by a people’s vote, has to stand against more than two hundred years of male statues, many of which represent the values of a privileged few. Statues are expensive: they require land, permissions, and the cost of a commission and creation.
They require the support and endorsement of an establishment that feels entitled to choose who we should look up to, and not very surprisingly, with two minor exceptions, that hasn’t included women.
The recovery of an individual or a group from invisibility requires making a fuss – or at least that’s how it’s seen by those being asked to make space for what they’ve left out. Wales, for example, is always being told to pipe down, or is greeted with a yawn when it comes knocking on the door, clearing its throat to say, ahem, I think you’ve left us off the map/written us out of the account.
A project of recovery has such high barriers to overcome that it can seem like sniping to point out its omissions. For example, it might seem churlish to observe that the recovery project in Welsh art in the late 1990s was almost entirely male – because at least we now have a national art history.
The same is true of the Library of Wales series: there may be few women included, but at least we have these classics of Welsh literature in English back in print.
But it’s not sniping to point out the omission of women: it’s necessary. The same failure to see women recurs over and over (just look at the VIDA statistics published every year). When women are included in the public record it is almost always as an afterthought, or a correction, and the result of someone (usually a woman or a group of women) making an annoying fuss.
But it’s a curious effect of a recovery process that as soon as the individual or the work is revealed or included, it fits so seamlessly into the hole that any evidence of there ever having been a hole disappears. And people wonder why there was all that fuss in the first place.
This phenomenon suggests that once the statue of Betty Campbell is up, the chances of securing another statue of a woman will be weak. The announcement about a Rhodri Morgan statue, riding on the coattails of the Hidden Heroines campaign, illustrates the difficulty.
Statues of men don’t require making a fuss. The men deemed worthy of a public monument were never made invisible: they’ve been there all along, just waiting for someone to give them a pedestal. But women are being held to a different standard than men to justify their memorialisation.
Not only do we still need to make the case that women in general are worthy of such representation, but it also appears that they must be seen as heroines – and that by popular consent, rather than expert opinion.
The Hidden Heroines campaign organised by Carolyn Hitt, Helen Molyneux and others has put women – and their historic invisibility – at the heart of public discussion for months. Their hard work has changed public perceptions, and will change the physical landscape in Cardiff. The project and its result is rightly being celebrated.
The process raises further questions, though – not least what makes it possible now. In 1993, the editors of Rediscovering Forgotten Radicals asked: ‘Is it a coincidence that only recently, as women and other people labeled “minorities” have approached the literary banquet table, the status of all diners at the table has been thrown into doubt?’
In a similar way, a woman statue has been made possible only when the status of statues in general is in doubt. Statues are being pulled down or moved or vandalised – not only because we understand better how many individuals memorialised in this way represent worldviews and behaviour that we can no longer admire, but also because we recognise that such statues represent an exercise of power that we now reject.
According to the populist sentiments of the present, elites, like experts, are suspect, and the legitimacy of statues – the very legitimacy of putting someone on a pedestal – is in question.
The men we’ve put on pedestals were never held to the standard that our Hidden Heroines have been held, either in what they achieved, or in who admired them.
They were deemed important by virtue of the esteem in which they were held by their peers, not the esteem in which they were or are held by the general public (the discussion of Rhodri Morgan’s statue – if there is any such discussion – will tell us if that has changed).
Those who feel threatened by what they identify as feminism might see the outcome of the campaign as an expression of women’s power and privilege.
But tellingly we get a statue of a woman when the very power of statues is already undermined: it has been made possible after it no longer poses a challenge to anyone’s worldview. Once again we have been admitted to the party only after the guests have begun to leave.
So while this statue of a Betty Campbell will stand as a monument to her achievements and popular appeal, it will also be a monument to continued inequality. That in itself should galvanise us.
Enough of knocking at the door asking for women to be remembered or included. We need to find a way to ensure women are shoulder to shoulder with men from the beginning of everything we do – not as an afterthought or a correction.
That requires a widespread change in perceptions, of the kind that this campaign has created. Let’s ensure the change is cemented.
Jasmine Donahaye’s most recent books are The Greatest Need, the first biography of author Lily Tobias, and Losing Israel, a memoir.
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