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Past achievements, present challenges: women’s suffrage win marked by Tate

An installation view at Tate Britain, London, of the portrait by Annie Louisa Swynnerton, <em>Dame Millicent Fawcett, C.B.E., LL.D. ,</em> oil paint on canvas, 1120 x 1030 mm. The portrait is believed to have been painted around 1899 and was first exhibited in 1930. Tate collection, presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1930. Installation photo © Tate, by Joe Humphrys
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An installation view at Tate Britain, London, of the portrait by Annie Louisa Swynnerton, Dame Millicent Fawcett, C.B.E., LL.D. , oil paint on canvas, 112cm x 103 cm. The portrait is believed to have been painted around 1899 and was first exhibited in 1930. Tate collection, presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1930. Installation photo © Tate, by Joe Humphrys

Mancunian English artist Annie Swynnerton’s portrait of Millicent Fawcett has gone on display at Tate Britain, London, to coincide with the centenary 6 February of the Representation of the People Act which gave British women aged over 30 the right to vote. The centenary coincides with a period marked by striking contrasts and contradictions affecting women across continents.

The singular honour accorded Annie Swynnerton’s work (pictured) is part of a nationwide UK programme which includes the work featuring in an exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery, Annie Swynnerton: Painting Light and Hope, opening on 23 February.

A new statue of Fawcett by Gillian Wearing will be unveiled in Parliament Square later in 2018.

The display at Tate Britain is one of many ways  Tate with its multiple venues is celebrating women in the arts against an unexpected backdrop of raging controversies over unequal pay and targeting of women by male power in cinema, theatre, other performing arts and the media.

According to Tate Director Maria Balshaw, who succeeded Nick Serota in 2017, “The struggles of women to get the basic right to vote were long and arduous. It is hard to believe that it is only one hundred years since that historic victory which set us on course for equal rights.

“Great strides have been made in the intervening decades but we still have a long road to travel,” Balshaw said. “We are delighted to be marking Millicent Fawcett’s outstanding contribution to the cause with the display of her portrait at Tate Britain. We are also pleased the painting will then travel to Manchester for the Swynnerton exhibition, marking the city’s proud connection with the history of women’s suffrage.”

A BBC Radio poll result acknowledged Millicent Fawcett as the most influential woman of the past 100 years.

Tate Britain will also explore issues of representation, gender and politics in its collection displays, a digital tour exploring stories of women’s empowerment, talks by Frances Morris, director of Tate Modern, Otegha Uwagba of Women Who, and Sarah Corbett of Craftist Collective, as well as a salon produced by Bishi’s WITCiH (Women in Technology Creative Industries Hub) as part of Uniqlo Tate Late at Tate Modern. Stance Podcast will be in residence in Tate Exchange, and further workshops and events around the building will be hosted by South London Women Artists, the Women’s Art Library, Sisters Uncut and the Feminist Library. To highlight the UK gender pay gap, currently recognised as 9.1%, all exhibition tickets will be discounted by 9.1% for the duration of the night.

As Morris said, “This is a time to look back and celebrate women’s achievements over the past 100 years, but it’s also a time to look at what women are achieving all over the world today. At this month’s Uniqlo Tate Late, Tate Modern will showcase the amazing things women artists, musicians, writers, thinkers and creatives are doing here and now, as well as taking a critical look at the myriad challenges women continue to encounter in very different circumstances across the globe.”

Tate St Ives will open Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired by Her Writings on 10 February. Author of classic novels including To the Lighthouse and the pioneering feminist text A Room of One’s Own, Woolf spent much of her childhood in St Ives. This exhibition will use her writing as a prism through which to explore feminist perspectives on landscape, domesticity and identity in art, with works by more than 80 artists.

At Tate Liverpool a ten-week course for the public on painting inspired by women artists will run to 19 April.

Despite the suffragist pioneer’s well documented achievements, recent years have seen significant reversals in women’s overall representation at the same time as there have been selective advancements in gender representation. The gains in Europe are mixed, in numerous cases the British moves forward eclipsed by women’s gains on continental Europe, in particular in Iceland, northern Europe and elsewhere in the EU.

Rising income disparities have taken a huge toll on women, many disenfranchised due to unwelcome dependencies on state help, social fragmentation and religious oppression under misogyny of one kind or another.  Poverty resulting from earnings shortfalls has made victims of women through family breakups, crime or domestic violence, making a mockery of women’s enfranchisement through past movements such as adult female suffrage. Alas, this situation is not unique to any single country in Europe.

So the suffrage centenary, laudable and welcome, is especially poignant as it comes just after the end of a year or more noted for unexpected setbacks to women in politics, society and workplace, with only a few small token gains on the world stage. The poverty gaps that impact on millions of enfranchised women seldom gets adequate coverage in what goes for the mainstream media.

Furthermore, data from Prison Watch and the World Health Organisation indicate that Europe, the model continent, the super paradigm, continues to imprison women in high numbers, mostly for non-violent crimes. As a result of these largely legal but ill-conceived incarcerations, about 10,000 babies and children of those captive mothers are put constantly at risk by authorities as far apart as Scotland, Romania and Finland. So, while enfranchised women casting votes are not an uncommon sight in Europe, as, say, in Saudi Arabia, women are struggling to achieve equality at many levels within Europe and North America and other so-called economically and socially developed nation states, not just in distant foreign lands.

Data from Europol and other authorities suggests dilution of the rule of law, as rape and disappearances of women across Europe and North Africa have become commonplace, the result of numerous conflicts on European soil and on Europe’s shores, overshadowing constitutional gains such as the right to vote.

Women as mothers, daughters, sisters and wives are now rated as some of the worst victims of a combination of conflict, poor governance, casual or institutional discrimination rooted in ethnicity or race, plus the oft-reported misogyny of male power amidst ascendant nationalistic politics. Human rights organisations frequently point to rape and white slavery as weapons of choice in ongoing conflicts that all have spilled over into Europe through the flight of victims as refugees.

How a reasonable balance can be achieved between past achievements, glorious as they are, and today’s numerous and nefarious challenges is a question that needs more discussion but, ideally, an early proactive response. ©Sajid Rizvi.

Author: ACTEditor

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