Holding out for a Heroine!

12-01-2019 08:01

There has been a lot of discussion this week about which forgotten Welsh heroine should be immortalised as a sculpture which will be placed outside the new BBC headquarters in Cardiff. Five ‘Hidden Heroine’s made the short list, Suffragists Elizabeth Andrew and Lady Rhondda, Betty Campbell the working-class girl who proved the naysayers wrong, and journalists and writers Elaine Morgan and Cranogwen.  In the past I expect lady Rhondda would have been the obvious choice of the establishment because of her establishment connections, even though her whole life was spent ruffling feathers.  This time the choice has been left to all of us through a public vote; but does it really matter?

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Hidden Heroines

Human beings have been creating statues and figurative works of art for millennia.  The oldest statue is thought to be the ‘Lion Man’ which was found in a cave in Germany.  It could be between 35-40,000 years old. The interesting thing about the sculpture is that straight away everyone assumed that as the title suggests, it was a cross between a lion and a man.

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Lion-man of the Hohlenstein-Stadel 

Some years later, due to the lack of a mane on the lion’s head it’s gender was then reassigned as a female figure; only for years later, following the discovery of a few bits that had fallen off in the last 40,000 years, they think it’s probably a bloke again.

All of the ancient civilisations across the world have taken time from hunting, gathering, ploughing or harvesting to raise up statues.  I suppose the question must be why?  There must be far better things to do than waste all of those man, or woman, hours to create something which has no obvious value.

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Colossus of Rhodes

The Persians, the Greeks had statues as did the Romans and the Aztecs.  Some of them might have had religious connections, others might well have been there just to show how wealthy or important a city was.

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Statue of Zeus, Olympia

In the end all of them became a tourist attraction.  If you had a bucket list in 280 BC surely a visit to see the Colossus of Rhodes which stood 33 metres high would have been on it or maybe you would have wanted to see the Statue of Zeus at Olympia which was quite small in comparison at 13 metres high.

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In the Bible, statues always seem to have some connection with idol worship.  Believing in a God you can’t see was always more difficult than something man of stone, or wood or even gold.  After leading the Children of Israel out of Egypt Moses went up to the mountain to talk with the Almighty and get the new instruction manual in the form of the commandments.  While he was away the people got restless and his brother Aaron decided to create the sculpture of a Golden Calf.  He then threw a big party where the people worshipped the idol.  Needless to say, when Moses came back he wasn’t best pleased.  He smashed the tablets of stone, burnt the idol, ground it into dust, added water and made the Israelites drink the brew. That’s pretty hard core recycling isn’t it?

Anyway, enough ancient history, back to Wales in 2019.

We raise up statues for lots of reasons and there are plenty of reasons for the new Statue in Cardiff and plenty of reasons for it to be female.  The old James Brown classic said, ‘This is a man’s world’ and it would be hard to argue with that over the last 1000 years.  Men in government, men running business, men leading other men into war whilst in the background woman have been left to do ‘women’s work’.

Of course, as we have been hearing over the past few years through the commemoration of the centenary of the First World War, when the men left for the battle field it soon became patently clear that women where filling in for the men who went to war and could do the job just as well and often better.

Then when the men returned home they wanted their old jobs back and they usually got them, but something had changed and although many women had to retire back into the shadows it was impossible to put the genie back into the bottle.

Over Christmas I watched a film about Churchill becoming Prime Minister in 1940.  He is supported by his wife Clementine and he is surrounded by woman in his wartime bunker but all of the scenes of him making speeches in Parliament have benches almost exclusively filled by men.  (Of course, his mother Lady Astor was the first female MP to take a seat).

Welsh Labour MP’s Christina Rees, Carolyn Harris, Tonia Antoniazzi, Nia Griffith

One of the things you can’t fail to notice as you watched the Brexit debates in Parliament this week was there are woman in the commons, over 200 making up 30% of the total.  It’s not an equal gender split but it’s a start.  The important thing is that girls can see women in roles of power, it is not unusual, and it shows it is attainable.

Rev Samuel Billy Kyles

I remember when I met the Rev Samuel Billy Kyles in Memphis.  He was the man who invited Dr. Martin Luther King to Memphis for the garbage workers strike in 1968. He spent that final afternoon with Dr King in the Lorraine Motel and covered his body after he had been shot.  He told me the story of the bus strike in Memphis.  He and some other Church leaders decided to break the rules by sitting in the front, in the white only segregated section of the buses.  When he did the white bus drivers refused to move. The African American passengers criticised him for making them late for work but as he explained to them and to me, until you see someone like yourself at the front of the bus you’ll never believe it’s possible for someone like you to drive the bus. When he told me that story in 2003 the man in charge of the Memphis Transport Association was one of his congregation, an African American.

In many ways people who come from privileged backgrounds have no problem in believing in their ability to do almost anything.  As they look around at leaders in all areas of life the people in those positions look exactly like them.

Nurse Adrian Fletcher and Dr Burrows

That’s why we need to see different faces on TV and hear different accents on the radio. That’s why we need to see female doctors and male nurses on Holby City or have Fiona Bruce presenting Question time, or Oprah Winfrey hosting the most successful primetime TV show in the USA. That’s why we need a statue to a Welsh Heroine outside the BBC in Cardiff.

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All of the Hidden Heroine candidates have merit and quite frankly I wouldn’t be able to decide but as my daughters pass by that statue I hope they see it as normal rather than unusual.  In 2019 Lord knows, we need as many visible, vocal heroines as we can find.

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Mal Pope
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