Manchester's Pankhurst statue: Progress for women?

A bronze sculpture of Emmeline Pankhurst is to become only the second statue of a woman in Manchester. While this may represent progress for women's representation, the messaging behind this new public art work is rather more complex

Feature by Lara Williams | 28 Apr 2017
  • Rise Up, women

Sculptor Hazel Reeves was recently announced as the artist who will produce a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst for Manchester. Of the city’s existing 17 statues, only one is female: Queen Victoria, in Piccadilly Gardens.

The independently funded campaign WoManchester Statue conceived the project, with a longlist of 20 women to be sculpted, all of whom made a significant contribution to Manchester. The list included proto-feminist novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, social justice and anti-racism campaigner Louise Da-Cocodia and, of course, leader of the suffragette movement Emmeline Pankhurst – who was selected via public vote, with Reeves and her proposed sculpture Rise Up, women also winning the popular vote and that of a selection panel. The statue will be unveiled on International Women’s Day in 2019. It will be the first new statue of a woman, in Manchester, in 100 years.

Emmeline Pankhurst is quickly synonymous with radical Manchester (though she didn’t spend a huge amount of time in the city), and is already the subject of artist Charlotte Newson’s work Women Like You – a photo-mosaic of inspiring women, crowdsourced from the public (my grandma is one of the women). Newson’s work telegraphed something universal: an image of both the women that came before Emmeline and the women that came after, it is an expansive celebration of female strength that venerates the movement over the woman. Reeves’ quietly graceful statue of Emmeline Pankhurst has a different message: she is standing on a chair with her arm extended, she is mid-oration. This is Emmeline the galvaniser, Emmeline the enabler, Emmeline the human being. Visibility of ‘strong women’ is often rendered via a masculinised notion of ‘strength’: bellicose, physical, aggressive. There is something excitingly radical about the femaleness of Reeves’ design; Emmeline's strength characterised as determination, composure and eloquence.

But Emmeline Pankhurst is not without baggage; a conservative revolutionary with militaristic tendencies, she threw herself behind the First World War. The more radical choice might have been her daughter Sylvia: a socialist who set up home unmarried, with an Italian anarchist; who fell out with her mother, horrified by her support of the war. However, neither feel particularly prescient or relevant; boorishly disingenuous of intersectional feminism (there is just one statue of a named black woman in the UK). Of the longlisted subjects for the statue, only one woman is a person of colour; it is easy to see the project as an unambitious exercise in limited, self-congratulatory white feminism. Of the sculptors shortlisted, four were male and three were female; a nominal male bias, though for a project of this nature (and in the particularly problematic realm of women and sculpture), why not an exclusively female shortlist? Why an exclusively white shortlist?

There is a lot of rightful outrage regarding women and public art; how few women are made visible in public space, which women and how they are depicted (mostly royal, semi-naked or fictional) – and so this addition is no doubt radical. Looking at Reeves' proposed sculpture I can’t help but think of the current source of debate in public art – that of Charging Bull and Fearless Girl in New York. Fearless Girl: with her ponytail, and her flippy skirt, a cautious and calculated manifestation of female strength; the performative posturing precocious and ultimately non-threatening. She may well place her hands on her hips, jut forward her chin, but that bull is going to knock her off her feet. Alternately, there seems something symbolic and complicated about Reeves’ decision to sculpt Emmeline Pankhurst standing on a chair. It has a somewhat problematic 'Lean In' quality; but also, it is hard for women to take up space, to campaign for change, to stand on the damn chair.

Her hand extends out, straight ahead of her – and I wish it reached down.