On June 7th 1866 John Stuart Mill presented a petition to the House of Commons requesting an extension of the franchise to women. This was the first mass petition to Parliament on the subject and, although many followed subsequently, it wasn’t until 1918 that women over the age of 30 were granted the right to vote.
On June 7th 2016, 150 years later, a new art installation was unveiled in Westminster Hall over the door that leads into the House of Commons chamber to commemorate the men and women who fought for so long for the rights of women.
Mary Somerville had signed the 1866 petition but in 1868 when a further petition was presented to Parliament, this time with 21,000 signatures, her name headed the list at Mill’s request. Somerville College is the proud possessor of these letters from Mill to Mary Somerville making the request and celebrates the suffrage campaign alongside the House of Commons Art Committee who commissioned the new art work by Mary Branson entitled ‘New Dawn’.
The design of the metal and illuminated glass sculpture draws on concepts and imagery connected with Parliament and campaign for women’s suffrage. Permanently sited on the public route through the Palace of Westminster, it is designed to be seen by the hundreds of thousands of people who visit Parliament each year.
New Dawn is made up of back-lit glass ‘scrolls’ representing the many people and groups involved in the votes for women movement. Visually inspired by rolled Acts of Parliament, the scrolls incorporate the colours used by women’s suffrage organisations. The scrolls also represent the Acts which have given rights to women after centuries of inequality.
The overall shape of New Dawn suggests the rising sun. This mirrors a common image in women’s suffrage campaigning, which represented gaining the vote as a ‘new dawn’ for gender equality.
The votes for women movement was also often represented as a ‘tide of change’ sweeping the nation. To reﬂect this, New Dawn’s lighting is linked to the tidal River Thames. It builds from low tide, where only one disc is lit, to high tide, where the whole sculpture is illuminated. New Dawn’s dynamic lighting also brings the contemporary world into Parliament, signifying that campaigns for equality continue today.