We need more women in our public space - even those we campaign against

The statue of Viscount Falkland is a special place for me in Parliament.  Not because of who he was – I have no idea why he was deemed worthy of eternal stone-etched memory close to the entrance of Central Lobby. But in 1909, a woman called Margery Humes bravely chained herself to this statue in protest at the injustice of women being denied the right to vote.  In the hurry to remove Margery, and silence her cries of ‘Votes for Women’, the police damaged the spur on the boot of the statue.  This reminder of the painful struggle for gender equality is still visible; I like to stand in that very spot and imagine the courageous acts of suffragettes a century ago, whose fight for equality we continue today.

Parliament, in common with our town halls, city centres and public spaces, is packed with men.  I’m not just referring to the men going about their everyday business of being in charge, but the wallpaper of men immortalised in paintings, street names, statues and memorials.  Eleven monuments of men currently loom large around Parliament Square – and not a single woman.  Thanks to public campaigns such as ‘Plinths for Women’, a statue of suffragist Millicent Fawcett will rightly be unveiled there in April.

While Queen Victoria boosts the numbers of women statues, and unnamed nude women are not hard to find, data suggests fewer than 1 in 30 statues in the UK depicts a real woman from history, who wasn’t in the royal family.

So it was disappointing to see Westminster Council last month turn down an application for a statue of Margaret Thatcher in Parliament Square.  Maybe they think one out of twelve is enough, that they’ve ticked the woman box with the addition of Millicent Fawcett?  Apparently one of the reasons given for refusal was the state robes Thatcher would have been wearing.  Even in death, it seems there are no limits to how society judges women by how they look and what they wear.

Some might be surprised by my support for a Thatcher statue, as a Liberal Democrat MP from Scotland.  I grew up in the west of Scotland during the 1980s.  Local steelmaking and coalmining industries were hit hard by Thatcher’s policies.  Her disastrous decision to use Scotland as a guinea pig for the implementation of the poll tax is firmly lodged in my memory, along with the protests it generated.  Insultingly, the views of Scots were ignored, and it was only when similar outrage was later expressed in England, that the government finally saw sense and changed the policy.

On some issues she was right.  Thatcher showed impressive skills negotiating the UK rebate with our European neighbours; the contrast puts the current Conservative government’s chaotic approach to shame.  And her bold decision to take us into the Single Market, and recognise the threat of global warming, showed she had long-term vision about our country’s future.

Whatever anyone thinks of Margaret Thatcher’s politics, there can be no dispute about her significance.  She was our first female Prime Minister, and the longest-serving premier of the 20th century.  Thatcher gave her name to a distinct ideology which changed the course of the country.  Her free market reforms ushered in a new kind of capitalist culture, in my view too distant from society and our humanity.  Margaret Thatcher was devastatingly successful in advancing her political cause.  I now spend a significant amount of my time trying to find policy solutions to change the unethical corporate behaviour that Thatcherism unleashed.

If we want gender equality, we have to fight for space for women we vigorously disagree with, as well as those we support.   As a passionate advocate of Scotland’s place within the United Kingdom family of nations, I strongly oppose the attempts of Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP to tear our country apart.  Yet like Mrs Thatcher, there is no denying Ms Sturgeon’s significance as a political figure.  As the first woman to lead Scotland as First Minister, in due course she should surely also be recognised with a statue.

While I am no Margaret Thatcher fan, there is one thing in particular for which I do thank her. As a little girl growing up in the 1980s, it never even crossed my mind to doubt that a woman could be Prime Minister.  Seeing a woman in charge, running the country was completely normal to me. 

That achievement alone – for me and my whole generation – is more than significant enough to warrant a prominent statue in our public realm.  And the simple power of being the first woman Prime Minister is so often dismissed in the understandable fury about Thatcherite policies.

There’s no doubt some of the vitriol directed at Margaret Thatcher also carries a whiff of misogyny.  The sexist, gendered insults.  The way some people reacted to her death in 2013, with gleeful, tasteless celebration, is unlike anything I recall upon the death of any male politician, no matter how unpopular or controversial.  Even the whole statue debate is pretty sexist – since when did we only erect statues of men with whom everyone agreed?  Yes, Margaret Thatcher was demonised for what she stood for.  But then she was demonised some more because she was a woman.

Some argue that Thatcher did not do much to advance the cause of women.  Looking at her government appointments, and her pursuit of policies which undermined public services and hurt the poor, disproportionately women, this is fair criticism.  Madeleine Albright famously said ‘there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other’.  I generally agree, yet this is not a standard we typically hold men to when judging their significance as politicians.  And if we look through the lens of 1970s political power dynamics, do we really think for a second that a woman MP would have been elected leader of her party, let alone Prime Minister, if she had been an avowed feminist? 

Consider the path the young Margaret Thatcher trod.  The snobbery she must have faced as a grocer’s daughter from Grantham, in a Tory party riven by public school privilege.  The ingrained sexism she had to battle in 1950s Tory Associations, even to become a candidate, let alone an MP.  And then finally getting elected as a 33-year old woman in 1959, entering a political system dripping with patriarchal power.  When I interviewed Shirley Williams for my book Equal Power, she recounted how in the 1960s as a Minister in the midst of a national crisis, she had to communicate with the lead civil servant in her department through written notes.  He refused to speak to her in person because he disagreed with the notion of women Ministers.

Becoming a party leader as a woman in the 1970s was a remarkable achievement – and even more so to do it in the Conservative party.  Expecting anyone to have done it all: become party leader, serve as Prime Minister and single-handedly transform the fortunes of women, is placing too much responsibility on the shoulders of one woman.  We all need to play our part in creating a world of gender equality.

When I heard Hillary Clinton speak at the Southbank Centre last autumn, her answer to the question about what makes a successful woman politician was a single word: resilience.  She’s right.  Margaret Thatcher demonstrated extraordinary resilience in breaking the glass ceiling.  She created space for other women to follow, thankfully with different styles and different policy platforms.  If it wasn’t for her, we might still be waiting for our first woman Prime Minister.

So to Councils and public institutions across the country I say this: celebrate the centenary of women’s suffrage by making women visible, including those like Margaret Thatcher whose achievements are controversial.  Just as we need to see more women in our public life, we need to see more women in our public space.

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