Boudicca’s warrior-queen appeal to activists is enduring. But, argues Hanna Thomas, is it time to create some new myths?
I came across this Cordelia Cembrowicz print earlier in the year and I am not exaggerating when I say that I almost burst with excitement. As a former classics student, and current environmentalist and feminist activist, it was like all my worlds collided and then imploded to create this beautiful work.
Cembrowicz is a member of Climate Rush, a women-led protest group that urges the government to take strong action on climate change through peaceful civil disobedience, inspired by the actions of the suffragettes 100 years ago. They organised a number of actions last year that commemorated dates key to the suffragette movement, including a ‘rush’ on Parliament and a picnic at Heathrow.
The print shows the artist herself at Climate Rush’s Pedal Power protest last summer, sitting astride the Victorian statue of Boudicca (formerly known as Boadicea) and her daughters that sits upon Westminster Bridge. Boudicca, that great warrior queen who almost succeeded in expelling the Romans from Britain, is shown towering above Cordelia, overseeing her protest and protecting her with a generally amazing warrior-queeny vibe.
It feels heartening to look upon it, and think that we and our environmental movement could be descended from such a strong female figure as Boudicca, inheriting her lust for rebellion and the ability to drive social change forward. The suffragettes must have felt the same – they also used this statue of Boudicca to draw a parallel between the strong, ancient military leader and their own cause. The first great women’s suffrage procession departed from the statue on 19 May, 1906; it was drawn on leaflets where Boudicca’s spear was transformed into a banner reading “Votes for Women!”. There are stories of suffragettes turning up to protests dressed as famous female historical figures, such as Boudicca and Joan of Arc. It was incredibly important to their militant movement, to remind their peers that women were not inherently meek.
And so here, looking back at Cordelia’s print, we can see the artist continuing in this tradition, drawing strength from the example of Boudicca and advancing upon Parliament. As Climate Rush is inspired by the suffragette movement, Cordelia is also dressed as a suffragette, set against what looks like a large blue moon – a symbol of feminine strength.
But, if we think about it, this image is now double-layered. The artist is a modern girl from the 21st century, campaigning for climate justice, drawing upon the strength of the women’s suffrage movement, which itself drew upon the strength of Boudicca. It’s all getting a bit meta.
It made me think – do we need to rely on these mythical figures to give us strength, or can we now stand on our own? The suffragettes obviously found it very helpful to hark back to historical heroines, but maybe they needed to – perhaps it was one of the only avenues open to them to demonstrate a point. As well as that, the suffragette movement was at the same time creating leaders of their own that would themselves go down in history – such as Emmeline Pankhurst and her three daughters.
It made me think that instead of layering and layering past successes, perhaps, as feminists and environmentalists, we should be creating leaders of our own too.
How many activists have quoted Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech? How many of us own a Che Guevara poster/t-shirt/wallet/mug, however ill-advised? Many successful social movements of the 20th century (and indeed, before) had leaders to motivate, inspire and cajole. On a more domestic scale, no-one can deny that, since Caroline Lucas was elected Green Party Leader back in 2008, the party has gained more coverage and has been taken more seriously in general.
Yes, it is opposite to how we, as activists, work nowadays. Many of us who organise and participate in activist groups use consensus decision-making, often using a system of hand signals (PDF) to facilitate discussion and improve governance, with the goal that everyone has equal buy-in to every decision. That no one gets left behind, as it were, as they sometimes do using majority rule. We love it because we get to ‘twinkle’ and wave our jazz hands. Actually, I love it because it challenges us and gives room to those who don’t usually get a chance to speak. But being faithful to the idea of consensus has (so far) meant that we have had to be a faceless movement, and pull back those who are willing to stand up and represent.
There is bickering and in-fighting amongst us as we wrestle with who has done what, who’s getting above themselves, who is getting the credit. But – who actually cares who gets the credit as long as social change actually happens? If someone is willing to put themselves out there – for criticism, as well as praise – then let’s get behind them.
It’s time for a change. We need to create our own myths. How much do we want our movement to be connected to the military figure of Boudicca anyway? According to ancient historians Tacitus and Dio Cassius, she was responsible for razing two cities to the ground with the consequence of an estimated 70,000-80,000 dead Romans. We have archaeological evidence to back this up – the layer of red, scorched earth that lies below London and other evidence gained throughout recent years which merely confirms the brutality of the campaign. Discoveries at an archaeological dig near Colchester, a town seized and destroyed by Boudicca, even led dig director Philip Crummy to compare Boudicca’s programme and tactics to ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.
And I imagine we certainly wouldn’t want to be associated with some of her reported tactics against Roman women, as Dio Cassius illustrates: “They hung up naked the noblest and most distinguished women and then cut off their breasts and sewed them to their mouths, in order to make the victims appear to be eating them; afterwards they impaled the women on sharp skewers run lengthwise through the entire body.” We have no way of knowing whether this is true, but this famous account doesn’t show Boudicca in the most flattering of lights, or lead us to think that she should be a symbol of any form of sisterhood.
Even if we reject this particularly vicious representation and choose to see Boudicca as a freedom fighter, rebelling against colonial rule, we come up against the fact that she was appropriated as a symbol of empire during the Victorian age. This viewpoint inspired the statue on Westminster Bridge and you only have to look at any depiction of Britannia to see Boudicca’s imperial legacy. Is the idea of empire something we want our social justice movements to be linked to? Nor was it just the Victorians and the suffragettes – Boudicca has been appropriated by many social movements – nationalism, conservatism (Margaret Thatcher was often compared to her). Perhaps it’s time to let her go.
Thinking about these issues, I found some of Cembrowicz’s other prints – this collection of lithographs. Here, the artist depicts current members of Climate Rush against an art deco background that hints at, rather than relies on, a suffragette past. In their hoodies and DMs, you can see they are modern, and yet the method used mythologises them, as if we’re already looking back at a historical moment, when these women changed the world.
And maybe they have – are these women the new leaders of our environmentalist-feminist movement? If not, why not? It’s time to raise each other up. Let’s inspire each other and challenge each other to do better. And while we’re at it, let’s create new myths. Our granddaughters will need new stories to tell.
Prints by Cordelia Cembrowicz, used with permission.