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Feminist monument or progress standing still?

BERNADETTE HYLAND explores a bid to redress gender imbalance in Manchester’s statues by memorialising a famous woman

ANDREW SIMCOCK, Labour councillor for the leafy, affluent suburb of East Didsbury in Manchester, has instigated a campaign to try to rebalance the male-female ratio of public statues in the city. Of its 17 statues, only one is of a woman — Queen Victoria.

He says: “Like many people I was unaware that there were no statues dedicated to women in the city centre, and it seemed to me to be an injustice that should be righted.” Simcock has got Manchester City Council to support his idea and a shortlist of 20 women has been drawn up.

He is asking the public to donate to the campaign and stresses that no public money will be used. Simcock has paid for an advertising agency to promote the campaign and has embarked on a nationwide bike ride to raise money for the statue.

Estimated costs range from £120,000 to £500,000.

The Queen Victoria statue has a long history as a meeting place for political events in Manchester. In 1908 the Suffragettes were trying to get women to go to London for a huge procession, so they used the statue to advertise the meeting with a card displaying the Women’s Social and Political Union motto and a placard with details of a meeting the following evening.

A crowd gathered, the police arrived and ordered the removal of the placards. The event got in all the papers and gave the Suffragettes the publicity they needed.

So who are the 20 women on the shortlist? Well, as you would expect, the Pankhursts are there: Emmeline, Sylvia and Christabel. But there are also grassroots activists including socialist Hannah Mitchell, suffragist Lydia Becker and trade unionists Mary Quaile and Esther Roper.

Prominent politicians including Labour education minister Ellen Wilkinson, Shena Simon and Margaret Ashton appear alongside the odd Tory, such as Katherine Ollerenshaw, who was a councillor and adviser to Margaret Thatcher.

Others range from Louise Da-Cocodia, a nurse and activist in the Afro-Caribbean community, to Sunny Lowry, who was the first woman to swim the English Channel.

Across the north-west (and maybe beyond) new public statues have been dominated by entertainers. Morecambe’s statue of local boy Eric Morecambe is one of the most popular places for tourists to visit. Liverpool has Ken Dodd and Labour MP Bessie Braddock together, which might be a political comment, while north-west council Rochdale is putting up a statue to singer and actress Gracie Fields, a woman dubbed by a local Labour councillor as the Madonna of her era. Shouldn’t it be the other way round?

Underneath the overhyped 24/7 image, Manchester is a city facing major challenges because of government cuts as well as the choices made about where those cuts should be made by the Labour Council. Only 46 per cent of Mancunians voted in the general election, which is a sign of the increasing division between the people and the political system.

Manchester is the fifth most deprived area in Britain, and walking around the city, the increasing levels of poverty are obvious in the deteriorating state of its public places, as well as the way in which some groups of people, including the homeless, are taking their campaigns literally to the streets.

What do Mancunians think about having a new statue of a woman? Over 100 people turned up to the launch and Simcock believes the Womanchester Statue project “has struck a chord with people in Manchester.”

Annette Wright, president of Manchester Trades Council, hopes the debate will inspire new activists to get involved in local politics. “As the shortlist clearly illustrates, women have played a major role in campaigning, protesting and organising in the trade union movement in Manchester. We have a long way to go to give them all the recognition they deserve.

“By building the union movement in the present day, making sure women play a full role in this and remembering the women who played such significant roles in the past, we can start to go some way to addressing this. We can learn a great deal and be inspired by the examples of labour movement pioneers.”

Local historian Alison Ronan is a supporter of Margaret Ashton to win. “It seems to me that it is important that the statue represents a woman who was committed to Manchester and its citizens.”

Ashton was the first female councillor for Manchester (a Liberal), a committed pacifist and internationalist and campaigner for women’s and workers’ rights, including the vote.

Manchester NUJ activist Rachel Broady is more cynical, particularly about the whole role of statues: “It would be great if the list of women helps create a debate and reminds people of Manchester’s radical history rather than repeat the same, often limited, story of the Suffragettes. Ultimately, though, I think funding education — in schools and beyond — about our radical past, and the men and women involved, would be of more value than one more statue for the pigeons to sit on.”

Project worker and activist in the Mary Quaile Club Ciara Sullivan is also not impressed about either the statue or the fact that it is going be paid for by the public: “I think that makes it much worse. That makes it feel like a distraction to divert attention from areas still needing fixing and funding and using historical achievements as a diversion.”

It is now a question of whether the good people of Manchester will cough up the tens of thousands to pay for the statue and then vote for the woman whose legacy it will honour.

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