Women Making History
Summer is here and, slowly, London is re-opening. The end of May was a mad rush to catch Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Zanele Muholi – June promises a gentler pace and lots more sunshine. I started the month with a visit to Women Making History – a lovely and free exhibition of over 100 banners celebrating the Processions – an event that was organised on 10th June 2018 to celebrate the centenary of the women’s vote – let’s not forget however that NOT ALL women were granted the vote in 1918 – it took another 10 years of fighting for that to happen!
The exhibition is held at London Scottish House – until 11 July. As you reach the main hall of this quirky old building, you find a space filled to the brim with the bright coloured banners – skilfully hanging in front and above you. Banners are an ancient craft, which I had long associated with historical events or parades – until I came to the UK and saw them at demonstrations and trade union conferences. So, I guess it is no surprise that Artichoke – the organisation that works with artists to invade public spaces - commissioned 100 women artists to work with organisations and communities across the UK to create these unique banners with groups of women from different backgrounds, race, class, age, ethnicity, beliefs, religions, survivors of violence, refugees, women living with dementia, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, women with experience of the criminal justice system, nurses and more.
Then, on 10 June, tens of thousands of women and girls took the banners through the streets of the four political capitals of the UK – Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London – in a joyful tribute to the suffragettes and suffragists who had fought for women’s vote. Now, the mass-participation artwork is being turned into a dazzling display of colours, ideas and materials in exhibitions across the country. It’s a wonderful way to keep the story of the Processions alive – and share them with those who couldn’t partake.
The mini walking tour
London Scottish House (Horseferry Road) is a stone’s throw from Parliament – so, from there I headed to the river (Lambeth Bridge) and Victoria Tower Gardens South – a very pleasant little green spot to sit and ponder before you make your way to the Palace of Westminster. Just as you prepare to exit the park, you will see the Emmeline (1858 – 1928) and Christabel (1880 – 1958) Pankhurst Memorial – the tall statue is of Emmeline who is flanked by her daughter Christabel, represented in a bronze relief on one side and the Women's Social and Political Union (WPSU) prisoners’ badge on the other.
Emmeline founded the WPSU, whose militant tactics to agitate for women's suffrage landed her in prison on several occasions. This was in direct response to the perceived failure of the suffragists led by Millicent Fawcett (1847 – 1929). Ironically, since 2018, Fawcett, the more acceptable face of suffrage movement, has a statue across the road in Parliament Square - where she has far more visibility. Her unveiling followed a campaign by feminist activists, including Caroline Criado Perez, author of Invisible Women, who also led the successful effort to get Jane Austen to appear on the £10 note.
Statues of women are still relatively rare. On International Women’s Day this year the Public Statue and Sculptures Association (PSSA) launched a database which records 112 across the UK – most of them of white women!
From here you could jump on the tube at Westminster and call it a day – but then, you might prefer to keep going for a bit as I did. Walk on to Westminster Bridge, where you’ll find Boudicca’s (spelling differs) bronze statue. Fearless Queen of the Iceni, a British Celtic tribe is accompanied by two young women who are thought to be her daughters. She led an uprising against the Roman invaders circa AD60 and is said to have poisoned herself after she was defeated. Her burial site is unknown, but legend has it that she is buried under platform 8, 9, or 10 at London's King's Cross railway station - though no traces of her have ever been found … yet!
Cross the bridge and on your right, you’ll see Guys and St Thomas hospital. Before you get there, go down the stairs, right at the southern end of the bridge and you’ll find the Covid-19 Memorial Wall of hearts – a moving tribute to the 150,000 + victims of the virus in the UK alone. Opposite, you’ll spot the London Knife Crime Memorial.
Going back up – in the grounds of the hospital you will see the statue of the indomitable Mary Seacole (1805 – 1881) - a nurse and a healer from the Caribbean. ‘Mother Seacole’ as she was known on the Crimean battlefield where she treated injured soldiers, fell into obscurity for over a century – surprise, surprise. It was not until 2004, when she was voted into first place in an online poll for ‘Great Black Britons’, that Mary Seacole reclaimed her place in history and finally her statue was unveiled in 2016 – the first of a Black woman in the UK.
From here head over to the Southbank for a well-deserved refreshment!
Women Making History is on at London Scottish House
95 Horseferry Road, Westminster, London SW1P 2DX
Victoria Rail & Underground Station 10mins walk
St. James’s Park Underground Station 6mins walk
Westminster Underground Station 12mins walk
Currently the museum is not suitable for wheelchair users as there are a number of internal steps although this matter is being addressed.