Monumental decisions: which women should be recognised with statues in Canberra?

A bronze bust of Marion Mahony Griffin temporarily looks over Canberra from the Mt Ainslie lookout. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
A bronze bust of Marion Mahony Griffin temporarily looks over Canberra from the Mt Ainslie lookout. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Across the capital, the supplies of sculptural bronze have been mostly reserved for men. Only very occasionally is some spared to recognise a woman's contribution.

But a new parliamentary committee inquiry in the ACT will consider how the territory can promote equality and diversity through public commemoration - and the committee has asked for suggestions.

It's not just statues. The committee will consider place names, street names, suburbs and monuments. All are currently dominated by men.

Who might Canberrans suggest to ease up the balance?

Perhaps Susan Ryan, the first Labor senator the ACT and one of the first women in cabinet, would make a worthy addition.

Edith Cowan, too, the first woman to be elected to an Australian parliament. She took her seat a century ago this year.

And there's Rosemary Follett, the ACT's first chief minister - and the first woman to lead a state or territory government.

Catherine Helen Spence has also been suggested. Spence was Australia's first female political candidate, in the 1890s.

Or Pat Eatock, who in 1972 became the first Aboriginal woman to stand for federal parliament. She stood as an independent for the seat of Canberra on an Aboriginal rights platform.

A statue of Arthur Inglis Clark, shortly after it was installed on Constitution Avenue in late 2020. Picture: Sarah Basford Canales

A statue of Arthur Inglis Clark, shortly after it was installed on Constitution Avenue in late 2020. Picture: Sarah Basford Canales

And don't forget Marion Mahony Griffin, whose contribution to the prize-winning design for Canberra alongside her husband Walter has only recently received the attention and recognition it justly deserves.

Maybe there doesn't even need to be a concrete link to Canberra; something more transcendental might do. After all, Canberra is home to a statue of former British prime minister Winston Churchill and Scottish poet Robert Burns.

The chair of the Assembly committee, Leanne Castley, who is a Liberal member for Yerrabi, said while the issue of statues and street names wasn't the No.1 priority raised with her, it was still possible to tackle these kinds of problems and start a public conversation.

"Let's have a few more women, if we can," Ms Castley said.

The inquiry has been prompted by a petition to the Legislative Assembly earlier this year, which sought highlight the overwhelming majority of statues, place names and streets honoured men.

"It is important for women and girls to have women role models present and celebrated in the public space after whom to model themselves, as they cannot be what they cannot see," the petition, signed by 223 people, said.

Statues of Labor prime ministers John Curtin and Ben Chifley in the parliamentary zone. Picture: Karleen Minney

Statues of Labor prime ministers John Curtin and Ben Chifley in the parliamentary zone. Picture: Karleen Minney

Ms Castley said her awareness of the issue was prompted by the installation near the Legislative Assembly of a statue of Andrew Inglis Clark, a barrister who co-authored the constitution, late last year.

"When he first went up, in my office, we sort of thought, 'Check him out'. The question was raised. Great, another fella. And then Suzanne [Orr] brought the petition to the Assembly, and I thought, 'Yeah, OK, now is obviously the time'," she said.

"There was the walk in Parliament House for women and it just seems to be the time to be raising awareness of women."

The Legislative Assembly's standing economy and gender and economic equality committee is taking public submissions for the inquiry until November 30. The committee hopes to hold public hearings early next year.

Professor Angela Woollacott said the historical bias towards white men meant it was important to name more streets, suburbs and buildings after women, non-binary people, First Nations people and others from diverse ethnic backgrounds.

READ MORE:

But statues, the Australian National University's Manning Clark professor of history said, are a thorny problem.

"I think the big question is: Do we try to erect an equal number of statues of women, First Nations people, etc, or do we decide that statues of individuals are a bad idea?" she said.

"Arguably it's more important to memorialise big historical moments and changes ... than individuals of any category."

Professor Woollacott suggested the 1967 referendum to recognise Aboriginal people in the constitution, the High Court's Mabo decision and marriage equality.

"So perhaps the answer with statues is to take them down from the public places and relocate them elsewhere," she said.

"Singling out individuals for statues is always going to be an invidious proposition."

Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can continue to access our trusted content:

This story Monumental decisions: which women should be recognised with statues? first appeared on The Canberra Times.