After the #MeToo movement, it appears that the great British public felt the feminism movement needed bringing back down to earth with a bump — and the BBC provided the perfect opportunity with its BBC Two series, Icons.
For those who missed the series, each of the seven episodes focussed on categories from exploration to activism, from leadership to sport, providing ‘icons’ for the public to vote for. The winners were then pitted against each other in the grand finale and the great British public then voted the ‘Greatest Person of the Twentieth Century’ (spoiler alert — Alan Turing won). In the face of a hundred years of history, the programme was never going to satisfy everyone. But the all-male final was a less than flattering reflection on twentieth and twenty-first century attitudes to gender.
The series was heavily advertised, combining famous faces of past and present to entice audiences. As with all competitions of this nature, the selection of icons was controversial and much debated, with the exclusion of figures such as JFK, Princess Diana and the Beatles causing particular anguish for some. The programme’s webpage describes the selection process. A long list was drawn up, based on a criteria of: positive achievement and legacy, recognition from the public and a spread of figures from across the twentieth century. This long list was then narrowed down by a panel of journalists, academics, practitioners and broadcasters who were asked to think about legacy, achievement, impact, influence, contribution to the field and profile or iconic status.
Overall, sixteen men and twelve women were put forward; while not entirely representative of the 51 per cent of the population who are women, let’s give the BBC the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge that during the twentieth century, it was markedly harder for women to achieve the romanticised and mythologised status of ‘icon’. Education, social and employment opportunities for women were limited, and those who did achieve were often obscured at the time and only discovered decades later.
However, we are increasingly aware of these women and their contributions. We know the battle they had to fight to be heard, let alone thrive, in the public realm during the twentieth century. So why does the public memory continue to repress them?
There has been an increase in books recently that tell the stories of women: Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls; Bloody Brilliant Women; A History of Britain in 21 Women. But even the most well-known period of women’s history — the Women’s Suffrage Movement — is mentioned but not compulsory on the national curriculum. GCSE texts are dominated by men . A scroll through the International Movie Database (IMDb) and the British Film Institute websites show that to be portrayed on a film as a twentieth century woman, you ideally need to be royal, American, or played by Emma Thompson/Meryl Streep. British women are continually obscured from British public memory, making contests between Ernest Shackleton and Jane Goodall a one-horse race, despite the latter’s discovery of the ancestral link between humans and chimpanzees unarguably contributing more to the scientific sphere than the former’s Antarctic expeditions.
The twentieth century was a revolutionary period for women — and this is part of the problem. Female ‘icons’ of the twentieth century were permanently breaking the mould, persistently pushing their contemporaries to breaking point. Emmeline Pankhurst rejected the non-violent resistance of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Ghandi and is therefore far harder to mythologise as an ‘icon’. Billie Jean King is heralded as a lesbian icon, a feminist icon and continues to speak out on controversial topics — her chances against Muhammad Ali and Pele, men who were demigods during and beyond their sporting lifetimes, were slim.
From voteless to prime minister, women traversed a seemingly impenetrable landscape of political, economic, social and cultural barriers, succeeding to such an extent that the more ignorant would argue feminism is now an irrelevant concept in Britain. Their achievements would have been awe-inspiring had they been achieved by men; that these women succeeded despite being bound by laws and social norms makes them all the more extraordinary. But the education system, popular culture and public memory continue to minimise and belittle their achievements, reflecting not only the oppression of the twentieth century, but also of the twenty-first.
We cannot continue to blame history for our ignorance of female achievement, past and present. By failing to use education and culture to adequately recognise these women, we are only furthering the oppression they faced during their lifetime and denying today’s women the role models, icons and leaders they deserve and require. The all-male final of Icons was an embarrassment, not least because of how little attention it drew. It is indicative not only of the sexism of the past, but of the sexism of the present, and of the failure of both the British media and the British public to learn crucial lessons for the future.