East London Humanists reflect on the lack of statues of women, and champion a neglected local heroine, in this opinion piece (Newham Recorder 2 August 2018)
There is much about Newham to be proud of. But did you know it’s a trailblazer when it comes to feminist statues? Not that there’s much competition. A recent survey found that, after excluding Queen Victoria, nymphs and angels, just 2% of statues in this country feature women of achievement. The overwhelming number of effigies of men which fill our public spaces speaks volumes about centuries of male dominance.
Pioneering females depicted by memorials in the Borough include Edith Kerrison. The first woman councilor for West Ham, her life is celebrated by a plaque with a relief portrait at The Grove in Stratford. East Ham Library has a bust of Elizabeth Fry, campaigner for prison reform and much else, and a resident of East Ham and Forest Gate from 1809 – 1844. A sculpture depicting Joan Littlewood, the mother of modern British theatre, was unveiled outside the Theatre Royal in 2015.
There is no shortage of other women who deserve the special enduring public recognition of a statue. One is Sarah Chapman. Like so many women, her remarkable contribution and achievements have been shockingly neglected. Sarah was a prominent leader of the matchgirls’ strike of 1888. The strike was a pivotal moment in the history of women’s struggle and an important milestone in the birth of modern trade unionism. Sarah was elected the Matchmakers Union representative and was a delegate to the international Trade Union Congress of 1888.
Sarah was buried aged 83 along with five others in a pauper’s plot in Manor Park Cemetery in 1945. Due to the shortage of burial spaces there are plans to mound over the plot. A campaign to secure a permanent memorial to Sarah and to the matchgirls is spearheaded by Sarah’s great granddaughter, Sam. *
Statues are important symbols. That’s why we have them. A lasting memorial would help redress the historic sidelining of women.
Newham is now the first London Borough to have an elected woman mayor. A memorial to Sarah would help to reinforce Newham’s place at the forefront of .women’s slow march to equality.
Paul Kaufman, Chair East London Humanists