Vote 100: Reflecting on Women’s Representation

By Rachel Thwaites, University of Lincoln

Marking the one hundred year anniversary of (some) British women gaining the right to vote is a wonderful moment to celebrate.  It has given various people pause for thought and, while I was thinking about this piece, the unveiling of the first female statue on Parliament Square in London occurred (which Linda McKie has mentioned in her recent blog too[1]).  This statue is of Millicent Fawcett and is apparently the first of her anywhere.  This surprised me – such an important figure in British suffrage struggles not to be represented anywhere?  This made me stop and wonder what other important women might not have this representation either.  And think that, as sociologists, we should care about the past.

The past helps us to understand where we are now: the structures and institutions that shape and guide our lives.  This is about history teaching in schools, myths of the nation, and the representation of that past that we see around us.  It helps us make sense of who we are, shapes our values and what we see as valuable, and gives us a template for how things ‘should’ be.  There have been many significant debates about these issues recently, in relation to race, nation, and colonialism.  In this case, I would like to consider gender and nation in Britain and, along with campaigner for the Fawcett statue in Parliament Square, Caroline Criado-Perez, and International Relations scholar Cynthia Enloe, ask, ‘where are the women’?  How we represent and think of women of the past can influence our understanding and representation of women in the present.  This is a political issue.

As (for example) Rosalind Miles argues in her book Who Cooked the Last Supper?[2], women were there in the past, and they were doing important things!  The lack of focus on women’s important political, social, cultural, and economic impact on our history should be noteworthy.  But it seems that it is not – or at least, takes someone with Criado-Perez’s perseverance to point out and make change.  It is not taken-for-granted that women should be represented in important places, or discussed in school curricula, or remembered as those who made discoveries, increased knowledge, made art, or changed the face of social and political relations.  Instead women seem oddly removed from our understanding of our history overall, except for a few very famous faces.  Nevertheless, even someone as ‘famous’ and significant to suffrage as Millicent Fawcett can be forgotten.  Faced with such lack of discussion, and visual representation, of the impact of women on our past it can be concerningly easy to dismiss us and our capabilities.

It is wonderful that there is now a statue of Fawcett on Parliament Square, but the effort should not stop there to bring more notice to the important part women have played in shaping British society.  And the impact this lack of representation may be having on women in the present.

[1] McKie, L. (April 2018) Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere. Available:

[2] Miles, R. (2001) Who Cooked the Last Supper? The Women’s History of the World. New York: Three Rivers Press.