We Still Don’t Value Women in Public Life

Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Scottish Liberal Democrats MSP for Edinburgh Western.


We’re getting a statue of the Great Auk in Edinburgh. Well that’s a relief. For those of you who don’t know, a Great Auk is a flightless bird which was hunted to extinction in the mid-19th century. Our dearly departed, feathered friend will join the many other animals that are memorialised in our nation’s capital: the giraffes of Leith Street, Wojtek, the Polish, gun-carriage-drawing bear on Princess Street and several others.

Why is this relevant to a 50/50 blog? Well, because all told, statues of animals outnumber statues of women in the city by about 5:1. Walking down the Royal Mile, you couldn’t swing a dead Great Auk around your head for fear of hitting the stone effigy of a bloke who was big during the enlightenment – but there is no sign of the women who built so much of this city and its legacy.

A number of city MSPs and I from all parties have recently taken up the campaign to see Elsie Inglis commemorated on the Royal Mile. Elsie was a leading Suffragist in the late 19th century and was close friends with Millicent Fawcett. As a doctor, she established the Women’s Hospitals Movement which took mobile field hospitals to the bloodiest battlefields of World War 1. She was one of the only women ever to receive a state funeral and there are statues to her in Serbia and in France. Her only recognition in the capital is a small plaque in St Giles Cathedral.

The commemoration of important and trail-blazing women matters. It matters because if we don’t do it then the subliminal impact of public art is to cement the patriarchal view that only men can ever achieve greatness. I want to be able to walk up the Royal Mile with my daughter, Darcy, from the palace to castle, and ignite her ambition by pointing out famous female lawyers, politicians and authors and walk her through the steps she’ll need to take if she wants to be like them. The same is true for TV; modern political dramas, whether it be House of Cards or Designated survivor, idealise the rise of men and show the lead character using his male resources to grasp the reins of power. I don’t know about you, but I would like to see a TV adaptation of the life and career of Mary Esslemont, Barbara Castle or Shirley Williams.

It may seem ephemeral but it all adds up. I know so many women who are strong, talented leaders yet still doubt their potential because the world around them is crowded with pictures and sculptures of successful men. I’m glad that we live in more enlightened times where young girls are no longer so readily funnelled towards caring professions and home-making while young boys are groomed for power, but that’s only half the battle. We need to level the playing field in every single aspect of life, whether that’s shared parental leave so an employer can’t infer that a qualified female candidate is a maternity flight risk, or all women shortlists for candidate selections within our political parties.

But all of these steps won’t make the difference we hope if the environment in which we conduct our lives is filled to the gunnels with stone carvings and film adaptations of great men. Our daughters need to be constantly reminded of what they can become to enable them to follow in the footsteps of mighty women who have gone before them.

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