It’s no secret that women have been forgotten or, in some cases, completely erased from history. We often only hear about pioneers such as Katherine Johnson or Joan Clarke through movies, and even then, Hollywood’s desire to tell women’s stories is a long overdue trend. We’ve seen the fight for representation on banknotes and statues, led by activist Caroline Criado Perez, end in success – Jane Austen now sits on our tenners and leading suffragette Millicent Fawcett will stand in Parliament Square later this year. Now, it’s time we turned our concentration to the state of London’s blue plaques.
According to 2016 figures, just 13 per cent of the 902 commemorative blue plaques are dedicated to women. Among them are Virginia Woolf, Amy Johnson – the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia, singer Gracie Fields and, of course, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. The Welsh actress Sarah Siddons was the first woman to be commemorated in 1876 – 10 years after English Heritage set up the blue plaque scheme.
According to Allison Vale, author of A Woman Lived Here: Alternative Blue Plaques, Remembering London’s Remarkable Women, the issue comes down to the recording of history being carried out “by men, about men, for men.” Writing in The Telegraph, Vale explains that due to chronic power imbalances, women often had to take an unorthodox route to success. “Often, women excelled throughout their lives across a wide array of fields and so left a different kind of paper trail,” she says, “one which was messier for early modern historians to document than the linear career paths of many prominent men.”
For women whose achievements and lives have been eradicated from our collective consciousness, the need for women to be "recognisable" creates a Catch-22 situation for potential blue plaque nominees
It’s a narrative we’ve seen before, most notably in the nominations and winners of the esteemed Nobel Prize – though the prize has been around for over 100 years, and spans many disciplines, just 48 women have been awarded the accolade. Back in October, the vice-chair of the Nobel board of directors, Göran K Hansson, explained that the historical sexism in the scientific Nobel prizes is due to a backlog of information – the awarding committee has to check and verify discoveries, a process that can take years. “There was an even larger bias against women then,” he said, “There were far fewer women scientists if you go back 20 or 30 years.”
Unfortunately, it’s an excuse English Heritage probably won’t be able to use – but the criteria of who is allowed to have a blue plaque is, admittedly, narrow. The nominated person must not be fictional, and they must have died at least 20 years ago. More worryingly, a nominee must be “considered eminent by a majority of members of their own profession”, and “recognisable to any well-informed passer-by, or deserving of national recognition”. For women whose achievements and lives have been eradicated from our collective consciousness, these necessities create a Catch-22 situation for potential blue plaque nominees.
However, there are movements to get more women commemorated by blue plaques across London. Blue Plaque Rebellion is a campaign created by sports journalist Anna Kessel alongside the Women’s Sport Trust, with the aim of having the UK’s greatest sportswomen recognised by the scheme. Women like swimmer Agnes Beckwith, Olympic skater Florence Syers and Britain’s first black female football player Emma Clarke.
Vale also lists a number of other women who would be suitable for the blue plaque treatment. Take Barbara Bodichon, for example, who – along with being the cousin of Florence Nightingale – founded one of the earliest feminist organisations, The Langham Place Group, as well as a highly inclusive school in Paddington. According to the writer, she was also “instrumental in the establishment of Girton College, Cambridge, the country’s first residential college offering degree-level studies for women”.
English Heritage are aware of the issue – when the last count of blue plaques, in 2016, revealed the miserable ratio of women to men, the organisation appealed to the public to nominate more women. So, let’s do just that – you can propose a plaque here.