LONDON — After 11 male statues — mostly of white, middle-aged men of aristocratic pedigree — and nearly 200 years, the first female figure was unveiled on Tuesday in London’s historic Parliament Square, the locus of the British establishment.
Hundreds of people, including Prime Minister Theresa May, attended the unveiling of the statue, which depicts Millicent Fawcett, a now relatively unsung hero of the feminist movement who led campaigning for women’s right to vote. The bronze statue, which shows a middle-aged Ms. Fawcett holding a banner reading “Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere,” was installed in part to celebrate the centenary of women’s suffrage in Britain this year.
“When you think of the great people in Parliament Square, and when you realize that not one of them is a woman, it sort of begs the question,” said the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, whose office agreed to the installation last year after an online petition for such a statue received tens of thousands of signatures. “Are we saying there haven’t been incredible women in the past? That our country hasn’t been built on the back of great women?”
The petition was started by Caroline Criado-Perez, a freelance writer who previously successfully campaigned for an image of Jane Austen to appear on the British 10-pound note, an endeavor that quickly made her a target of online abuse. Gillian Wearing, a Turner Prize-winning artist, created the Fawcett statue, becoming the first woman responsible for a statue in Parliament Square.
With her hair swept back in a bun and cloaked in an unassuming coat, Ms. Fawcett contrasted with some of her male counterparts on the square, past prime ministers like Benjamin Disraeli and David Lloyd George, who are presented with outstretched hands or flowing robes. The square also features the hunching figure of Winston Churchill, as well as Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Its first statue, of George Canning, another prime minister, was unveiled in 1832.
Ms. Criado-Perez said it was important for Fawcett to be depicted at 50, an age when she became the leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, the main suffragist organization in Britain and a largely peaceful movement, unlike the more militant suffragettes.
“I wanted her to be standing there not at all sexualized, but statesmanlike,” Ms. Criado-Perez said.
Women celebrated the Fawcett statue, but questioned how much of a change it represented.
“In a sea of men, it’s one woman standing for all of us,” said Electra Bove, a travel agent, leading a gaggle of Italian high school students around the square. “This is just a gesture with no real meaning, it’s more a token. Still, it’s nice.”
Britain is not alone in still struggling with issues like gender pay gaps and sexual harassment. In the European Union’s latest gender equality table, Britain has made virtually no progress over the past decade in reducing inequality in jobs, income, political engagement or education, lagging behind France and the Scandinavian countries.
Still, Eibhlin Savage, who once worked at Holloway Prison, where hundreds of suffrage campaigners were incarcerated in the early 20th century, said the Fawcett statue was a powerful reminder of work that still needed to be done. “It just shows how far we still need to go,” she said. “We can’t take our rights for granted. They’re not handed to us on a silver plate.”
Ms. Savage and others remarked that women had been largely omitted from the version of history they were taught. Roxie Andrew, 29, admitted she had not heard of Ms. Fawcett until the statue was unveiled. “I just found out about her today,” she said, scrolling through her smartphone. “It’s quite inspiring and privileged to see this here, having a strong figure to look up to. I hope it encourages women to follow their careers.”
There were disagreements over who should have drawn the honor of being the first woman in the square. Some campaigners argued for Emmeline Pankhurst, who split from Ms. Fawcett’s organization, created a more militant group — the Women’s Social and Political Union, who were given the initially derisive nickname of suffragettes — and is better known today.
Britain’s suffragist movement emerged in the late 19th century, as Parliament extended the franchise to an increasing proportion of men while continuing to deny it to women. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, made up mostly of middle-class women, was formed in 1897, eventually becoming the biggest suffrage organization, with 50,000 members.
Born in 1847, Ms. Fawcett helped found Newnham College, the second college at Cambridge University to admit women. She also supported other causes like the abolition of the slave trade, and led an investigation into British concentration camps in South Africa during the Boer War, camps in which tens of thousands of Afrikaners and black South Africans starved to death.
Ms. Fawcett died in 1929, a year after women in Britain were given the vote on equal terms to men.