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Time for our great women to break the bronze ceiling

University of Birmingham lecturer Chris Game says the city needs to up its recognition of female icons in its public artwork

Hebe the godess of youth statue in Corporation Street, Birmingham
Hebe the godess of youth statue in Corporation Street

An early election prediction: fewer women than men will vote on June 8 - as in every recent General Election.

In contrast to the US, where in every presidential election since 1980 - long before there was a woman candidate to support - literally millions more women have voted than men.

It certainly reflects and may, in some small way relate to, there being considerably more American women achievers visibly commemorated in public outdoor sculptures.

In actual numbers, obviously, but also proportionately though comparisons are complicated by the main achievement of most of our memorialised women being simply to have been born royal.

This was one of the problems that confronted Caroline Criado-Perez, the journalist and feminist campaigner chiefly responsible for our new polymer £10 notes, as well as our shiny new £2 coins, featuring the head of Jane Austen, rather than another already well celebrated chap.

As Andrew Mitchell noted in last week's Post review of MP Jess Phillips' book, women's "reward" nowadays for speaking out on such issues is "extraordinary levels" of social media abuse.

Criado-Perez was no exception. Undeterred, though, she turned to 'sexing' the 925 statues on the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association's database.

Initially, and excluding animals and the gender-ambiguous, there seemed an almost encouraging number of female-looking figures: 253 out of 885.

Approaching one in three, which is more than, say, women high court judges or university professors.

However, once Criado-Perez discounted the 100-plus mythical and allegorical creations, the Virgin Marys, anonymous nudes, and the odd mermaid, there remained just 71 historical women and 517 historical men. Down to one in eight.

Moreover, only 19 of the men are royals, but 46 women, including, as if in some surreal Monty Python sketch, 29 Queen Victorias.

So, of all Britain's statues, Criado-Perez reckoned that historical, non-royal women comprise just 2.7 per cent - encouraging as an annual growth rate but hardly as a contribution to gender equality.

Hence her second successful campaign - a petition to London Mayor Sadiq Khan for "a statue of a suffragette in Parliament Square to mark [in 2018] 100 years of female suffrage".

And, as significantly, to break the Square's monopoly of 11 notable statesmen, doubtless worthy of statuary honour, but several - Jan Smuts (1920s South African PM), Abraham Lincoln, even Nelson Mandela - with less obvious claim for commemoration at the heart of UK democracy than leaders of the long battle for women's suffrage.

Interestingly, despite her petition's actual wording, Criado-Perez's own favoured and eventually chosen nominee was Millicent Fawcett, a tireless feminist campaigner, founder and leader of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies and therefore, back when these distinctions really mattered, a non-violent suffragist.

Definitely not, in short, a militant, hunger-striking suffragette - the term associated with Emmeline Pankhurst's radical Women's Social and Political Union who anyway already has a statue nearby in Victoria Tower Gardens.

The widely supported campaign was eventually awarded a government grant from next year's £5 million centenary fund.

Whereupon the Mayor's Suffrage Statue Commission selected as sculptor Birmingham-born conceptual artist Gillian Wearing.

It was an interesting choice, for most of Wearing's best-known work, including her Turner Prize-winning 60 Minutes Silence, has been in photography and video.

Until, of course, her 2014 bronze sculpture of A Real Birmingham Family (ARBF) in front of our city's new library, the 'contemporary style' of which doubtless helped her case.

It also sits well with Criado-Perez's concern at the sculptural dearth of real non-royal women.

For, by my count, Roma and Emma Jones, the two ARBF sisters depicted with their two - or two and a half - children, could well be the only two 'real' non-royal women to be found among Birmingham's outdoor sculptures.

Even, if wrong, that I can even seriously suggest it represents a pretty sad state of affairs and I am always slightly embarrassed by my own workplace, the University of Birmingham's Edgbaston campus, being a prime contributor.

The university does possess a striking work by one of Britain's greatest sculptors, Sir Jacob Epstein - a portrait bust of obstetrics professor and medical pioneer Dame Hilda Lloyd.

But, unfortunately, like a character in a Brontë novel, she's mostly kept indoors in the medical school, accessible only by prior appointment.

Far more visible - fronting its most important building and seen, if not comprehendingly, by all students in their first days in the university - is Henry Pegram's Pantheon of the Immortals frieze of nine life-size stone statues representing founder Joseph Chamberlain's vision for his new institution for the study of the universality of human knowledge.

Their dress and hairstyles mean several could easily pass as women - Beethoven, Virgil, Faraday, Newton certainly, maybe even Shakespeare.

But all, of course, are indisputably great men.

If several are apparently looking down, it's possibly at the only woman around - Bernard Sindall's perky bronze Girl in a Hat. Yes, that's it... just a hat - even in winter.

Odd, but she's not alone. In the middle of James Watt Queensway there's Robert Thomas's Hebe, the Greek goddess of youth, seemingly panning optimistically for gold, and, in the Cadbury factory grounds in Bournville, Terpsichore the muse of dance, both activities evidently necessitating complete nudity.

Incidentally, Terpsi's creator, William Bloye, easily Birmingham's most widely displayed civic sculptor, was also responsible for the Huntsman and Dog pub sign of my near-local, The Green Man in Harborne.

And partly too for Queen Victoria in Victoria Square - though, perhaps thankfully given Bloye's creative predilection for undraped women, for its 1951 bronze recasting, not the 1901 original.

Manchester councillor, Andrew Simcock, reckoned his city's Queen Victoria was similarly its only female statue.

So he launched a WoManchester campaign, raising enough to commission its own Emmeline Pankhurst.

But there are loads of other recent, and more original, examples: Sheffield's wartime munitions factory workers, Women of Steel; Carlisle's biscuit factory Cracker Packers; 1930s aviator Amy Johnson in both Hull and Herne Bay, Kent; Victoria Wood, as Dinnerlady Bren, in Bury.

Which suggests it's time, surely, for Birmingham to break through our own bronze ceiling?

Chris Game is a lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham

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