Interview with Caroline Criado Perez
Interview with Caroline Criado Perez

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Interview with Caroline Criado Perez

Caroline Criado Perez is a writer, broadcaster and award-winning feminist campaigner. In 2016, running through London's Parliament Square with her dog Poppy, Caroline noticed that - of the 11 bronze monuments to politicians, activists, heroes and earls - not a single one depicted a woman. Accustomed to the rigours and determination that campaigns on a national scale demand after her successful crusade to install Jane Austen on our £10 notes, Caroline began a drive to rectify the situation and erect a statue of a woman in the historic London plaza. Collaborating with the Mayor of London and artist Gillian Wearing, and after two years of tireless activity, a statue of Suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett was unveiled in Parliament Square in April 2018. We spoke to Caroline about the campaign itself, the crucial importance of female representation in our culture, and what the future holds for her.

I don’t do it from a cold logical place; I do it from a place of passion and a place of anger and frustration – and a place of truly believing that this stuff has to change.

Caroline Criado Perez
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Jane Austen on the ten pound note

Chloe Grimshaw

Millicent Fawcett began campaigning for women’s suffrage when she was just 19 and wrote in her diary in 1928, “I have had extraordinary good luck in having seen the struggle from the beginning” when men and women gained equal voting rights. Do you see yourself campaigning for the next 50 or 60 years - just as Millicent did?

Caroline Criado Perez

I fully expect that I will end up doing this for the rest of my life because it comes from the heart – and I feel like a twat saying that! I don’t do it from a cold logical place; I do it from a place of passion and a place of anger and frustration, and a place of truly believing that this stuff has to change. It’s not really a question of “do I want to?" or "could I?”, or anything like that – I don’t do it like that. I do it because I just can’t help myself.

CG

Why did you begin the campaign to have a statue of a woman in Parliament Square?

CCP

My first reaction was, how are there no women here? This is just ridiculous – genuine disbelief was what I felt. Women are underrepresented in all sorts of spaces but, in such a high profile space, it was just incredibly shocking that someone hadn’t thought to address this.

Female representation is incredibly important. It’s important to me, but it's important to society – there is no doubt that the fact that we don’t see women, from popular culture to the built environment, to business, to politics, has an impact on ordinary women’s lives because it means that the people making the decisions are:

a) Not women

And b) not thinking about women.

And so when policy gets passed, when things get designed, they get designed based on what men need and what men think, and what men want and male bodies. I know that it’s important and I know that it’s a problem and I know that there is a gap in female representation – but given the conversations that we’ve been having over the past ten years, with the resurgence of feminist activism being this big public conversation, I just found it inconceivable that no one had noticed this.

This incredibly high profile square that obviously has a huge importance and a huge meaning and is a place where people gather to protest, opposite parliament where all the decisions get made and all the laws get made – it was just shocking, it was really, really shocking. I stopped and I just had to go and count because I just really thought that it couldn’t possibly be that I was the first person to notice this in 2016.

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Caroline Criado Perez. Image credit: Rachel Louise Brown

CG

Did you have any idea of who would be on the statue and what it would look like?

CCP

Once I got going on it, there were things that I cared about and that became important. I started looking into – what do statues look like, how have we represented people in history and statues? Not only were women barely represented, but the way they were represented when they were represented at all was also terrible: as allegorical and naked, only ever young and beautiful. The vast majority of real women were royal. So it was incredibly important to me that it was a statue that visibly looked like a female person.

The other thing that is a problem about the way that we represent our history. The statues are kind of the nadir or zenith of this; they represent history as if there was one person, inevitably a man, who on his own does all this amazing stuff and changes the world – that’s not how change happens, not for women and not for men.

My favourite book title ever is ‘Who Cooked Adam Smith’s dinner?’, which basically demonstrates this so perfectly. There’s this whole theory of the economy that completely forgets to ask – who cooked the architect of this theory his dinner? And the answer was his mother. So even all these men, who didn’t allow women to work with them in Parliament, were still having women do all the necessary stuff that needs to happen for us to survive like cooking or cleaning. So it was very important to me that it made clear that it was a movement.

CG

The images of 59 of Suffragette and Suffragist men and women around the base also seem to be really important – how did you make this choice?

CCP

I have no idea about art – I just know whether I like it or not. I had no idea how Gillian would do this, but when I saw what she’d done it was very clear that it was exactly what I wanted, it was wonderful and so emotional. We were very lucky to have these brilliant historians come and help us choose who should be the men and women on there. That’s something that has bothered me about Suffrage history, which has followed this similar approach to [wider] history – as if everything that happened was because of the Pankhursts, when obviously it wasn’t. It was a huge social movement that took in women from all different kinds of ethnic and social backgrounds from all around the country – and the Pankhursts would have been nothing without all the women who stood beside them and worked alongside them.

It was very important to have a good and diverse mix of women there, and we did want a couple of men too. I wanted it to be mainly women but it is important to acknowledge that you need to bring people with you.

CG

How would you characterise the difference between the Suffragettes and Suffragists?

CCP

Often Suffragettes and Suffragists were pitted against each other, as if they were mortal enemies – which is ridiculous, as they were both fighting for the same thing. There was this idea that the Suffragettes were the really important brave ones and they were the ones who got it done - alternatively people say they were terrorists and that without them the Suffragists would have got it done much quicker. That’s all ridiculous, the truth about campaigning is that you do need to make a splash, and that’s what the Suffragettes did. But also, you need to be able to bring people along with you – and that’s what the Suffragists did, and they were both [Suffragists and Suffragettes] incredibly important.

Often Suffragettes and Suffragists were pitted against each other, as if they were mortal enemies – which is ridiculous, as they were both fighting for the same thing.

Caroline Criado Perez
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Gillian Wearing with model of her Millicent Fawcett statue

CG

Which camp would you have been in?

CCP

It’s exhausting and sexist the way the Suffragettes/Suffragists have been divided into a classic good girl/bad girl, Madonna/whore - all that kind of crap, that’s what that is. Some people like the good girls and some people like the bad girls, it's rubbish! Actually they were all bad girls by the standards of the time. To be standing up and making speeches and saying – “Hey! I have a right to have a voice and to be part of deciding what laws get passed!” – that was a badly behaved woman.

CG

We spoke to a local activist in Camden called Hannah Morris, who campaigned as a young MP to reduce the voting age from 18 to 16. She has just turned eighteen and is now taking her A-Levels at Camden School for Girls. Hannah wanted to ask you – “What is best way to campaign – Is it marching, protesting, campaigning online, writing to your MP? What’s been most effective for you?”

CCP

It’s not an either/or – you have to do all of that. It depends on what you are campaigning for – the thing that I am currently trying to work on is not really a protesty kind of thing, it’s a legislative working behind the scenes thing. If it’s a traditional, needing-public-support-to-get-this-changed thing – then you need to do all of that.

Online is amazing for campaigners, in that it has completely transformed the game and transferred power – because it’s given people access to so many more people. People are quite snooty about online petitions but what they forget, or don’t realise perhaps, is that online petitions are so much more than old-school-style petitions. A modern petition is a database. By signing someone’s petition, you have their contact details and you are creating a movement, so you’re not asking people, “Do you support this?” – you’re asking, “Will you join my movement?”

We got 85,000 signatures for the statue, it’s more than that now – “Will you come and do stuff to keep the pressure up? Will you write to your MP, will you tweet, will you turn up outside the bank of England dressed as Jane Austen?” The original campaign was just for female representation but someone chose to come as her, which was quite serendipitous. You have to employ all the tactics in your arsenal and also it does depend what your campaign is about. It might not be relevant to get your MP involved; it depends what you’re asking for.

CG

Could we talk a bit about your recent campaigns, such as the image of Jane Austen on the ten pound banknote? Were you surprised that there was such a backlash?

CCP

As you say, I hadn’t asked for anything obviously controversial. Campaigning is exhausting and it takes over your life – and if it’s something that you have to do alongside your actual paid work, that you have to do to pay your bills, you kind of have to lose your mind a little bit when you start it. For me, the trigger is always – this is just so ridiculous, how is this a thing? And that’s what sets me off and starts me doing something. That’s kind of why they are things that are so blindingly obvious that I can’t believe I even have to campaign on it. It's like the viral picture of a lady dressed up as a Suffragette, saying, “I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit!”

I remember one person asking me, “How could you spend three months of your life campaigning for a woman to be a on a banknote - what a waste of time, haven’t you got better things to do?” What I thought in response was – “Well, you’re right! It’s ridiculous that I had to spend three months!" And that’s why it matters: the fact that it took me so long to get this tiny little change – that should signal to you that we’ve got a problem.

When I started the campaign, I genuinely thought this was so clearly a case of, they just haven’t thought about it – and they will say, “Oh yeah, good point, we’ll sort that out!” I didn’t expect to have to fight – let alone getting inundated with rape and death threats.

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Criado Perez and her dog, Poppy. Image credit: Rachel Louise Brown.

The fact that it took me so long to get this tiny little change – that should signal to you that we’ve got a problem.

Caroline Criado Perez
CG

How would you define feminism?

CCP

To me, feminism is literally about treating women like human beings. If one woman is bad at maths, or if one woman isn’t very funny according to some guy, if one woman cries, she is taken to represent all of womankind and that is because there are so few women in the public eye and these women have to represent us all. There are so many men [in the public eye] that no one could ever begin think that one unfunny man means that men aren’t funny – and that is about seeing women as a different species to men. We’re not a different species, we’re a different sex, and that’s a completely different thing; it just means that we have vaginas and after puberty, breasts.

CG

How do you think we can achieve equality?

CCP

The way to address this is to have properly paid paternity leave – and the reason that governments don’t do that goes all the way back to Adam Smith and who cooked his dinner. They don’t understand that by having women do all this work unpaid, unrecognised and uncounted towards GDP, how much of an impact it has on women’s ability to engage in paid work – and to make the most of the educative investment that we put into both girls and boys. We educate them the same but then we say to girls, “Well, all that money that we put into your education wasn’t that important and you shouldn’t really use it to the best of your ability.”

Two people have created that kid and it makes sense that they both are involved equally in bringing it up. The same goes for all the other things like keeping the house clean, or looking after elderly parents who’ve got sick – all the things that women do without it being noticed. Women still do 75% of the unpaid care work around the world. It’s impacting on them in the way that it doesn’t impact on men – women are basically keeping the world going with inevitable consequences in their ability to be powerful and to change things.

CG

What do you think is the best way for women to become more visible – is it through books, films, statues?

CCP

All of it – it has to change everywhere. It can’t just be down to people doing big public campaigns. Campaigning is not just about being that loud vocal person who goes on TV and stands in the square – it’s the woman who told me that about how she got all the company literature all changed from the default he pronouns, to he and she, or the woman who points out that all the women are getting interrupted and talked over in the business meetings. That is all campaigning, that is all standing up for female representation. It’s so endemic that men are the default humans – and if women don’t do that, this will just carry on.

CG

Can you talk about the design of the statue and the process of working with Gillian?

CCP

We invited a number of artists to put forward designs and Gillian’s was the obvious choice. I’m not an artist, but it ticked all the boxes that were important to me – it was figurative, representing it (Women’s Suffrage) as a movement and I just loved the placard idea. So that was how we got to Gillian.

At that point we hadn’t narrowed down on Millicent. After a bit of thinking and research, I had come round to Millicent – but Gillian had come round to Millicent on her own. Gillian called me up before she got going to ask me what I wanted – I told her that I absolutely want her to be middle-aged or older, a woman who has lived and has achieved things and is on a par with her fellow statesmen in the square, who are all old men. They’ve really done their life’s achievements.

The rest was Gillian being the kind of artist that she is, who I know now is extremely exacting, with incredible attention to detail. The only statue to have tweed represented in bronze! She did so much research, she knew that Millicent walked a lot so she portrayed her in this walking suit. There are lots of details for people to uncover – even the green, white, red flowerbed. Most people now stop and look and that is massively down to Gillian’s design.

It’s actually a lot worse than women being represented in films and statues. We’re not represented in numbers either, in the knowledge we have as a human race.

Caroline Criado Perez
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Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, Gillian Wearing and Caroline Criado Perez at the unveiling of Millicent Fawcett. Photo credit @GLA/Caroline Teo

CG

Can you tell us a bit more about your book? [to be published spring 2019]

CCP

It’s about the gender data gap – on a continuum with female representation in cultural spaces, the campaigning that I do. It’s about the invisibility of women. It’s actually a lot worse than women being represented in films and statues. We’re not represented in numbers either, in the knowledge we have as a human race.

The vast majority of medical data is based on the male body – as a result, diagnostic check lists often don’t work for women, drugs don’t work as well for women as they do for men. Women are more likely to die of heart attacks if they have one because their female symptoms are often different.

Other chapters will be on the Economy and Health – although when women’s work gets farmed out and paid for, suddenly it is part of the GDP. It affects the most surprising things like transport infrastructure or the workplace, where women are often working in very dangerous environments. One of the areas that are particularly bad are nail salons, where women are exposed to toxic chemicals, where there is acrylic dust in the air – it’s classic 'terrible workplace' and women are really suffering from a load of terrible health problems. Because it’s a female dominated workplace, there hasn’t really been anything done about it.

CG

Is there also a gender data gap when it comes to new technology?

CCP

Technology is being designed without reference to women or women’s bodies. The irony was that when Siri was released as a woman, she could find you Viagra but not a rape crisis centre – helpful for men, not so much for women – or the Apple IOS Health App, being released without a period tracker. There are all sorts of algorithms that are being used for job hiring decisions that are trained on biased databases. Women are 47% more likely to die if they are in a car crash because car safety is being designed around the male body. It's becoming a bigger problem because of the way algorithms are coming into all of our lives in all these hidden ways – algorithms are secret proprietary software, no one can have a look at them, so we don’t even know how bad it is apart from by looking at the consequences. It’s a worrying time.

CG

How does algorithmic software work?

CCP

Voice recognition has historically been much better at recognising male voices than female voices and that is because the voice corpora that they are trained on are massively male dominated - and so you can tell that based on the fact that they don’t recognise female voices. There are some corporas that have that data available and make it clear that it’s very male dominated. At the moment these things are more irritating than anything else, when it’s things like 'Alexa' - but they are also dangerous in cars and increasingly are being used in the medical field, which is going to be a huge problem if they are not going to recognise women doctors voices. That’s how we are discovering that there are all these problems. Or there is really obvious stuff like forgetting a period tracker, or phones being too big for the average woman’s hand...

CG

Do you feel positive about change, following the Women’s March in 2017 and a new wave of Feminist activism?

CCP

I don’t think we can get too pie-in-the-sky about this because the forces are stacked very much against us still. Do I feel optimistic? No – I feel determined, and I hope that the more of us stand up, the more change we can make. I don’t think for one second it's going to suddenly get easier or that we’re not going to have to still fight bloody hard because we are.

CG

How do you feel about #MeToo and Time’s Up?

CCP

I think it is incredibly important. The people that I interviewed for my book later on were all mentioning #MeToo as a catalyst for change in their industry. I interviewed a woman who set up a menstrual health tracker, I interviewed a woman who was a venture capitalist and a businesswoman, and we were just talking about what things were like in their industry. They all individually said that, since #MeToo, men have become more aware; they have started doing this; the industry has been changing – and this was only in the months following… I do think that is incredibly important but it can’t change things on its own. All of these things are just another little chipping away at this huge wall, this huge structure that we have to bring down. #MeToo isn’t going to change things overnight but it does represent one chip, and it's great to have another chip!

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Courage Calls T-Shirt, £25

To mark the 2018 centenary of women’s suffrage in the UK, and to celebrate the work of Caroline and Gillian in erecting a statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, Plinth has collaborated with the Mayor of London to produce a range of merchandise inspired by Fawcett’s message. Part of the proceeds from the sale of the range will be donated a woman's charity of the artist's choosing.

Header image credit @GLA/Caroline Teo

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