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Alison Lapper Pregnant by Dr. Janis Lomas

The 3.5 metres high sculpture, Alison Lapper Pregnant, was made by Marc Quinn for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square where it sat from 2005 until 2007. Statues of male heroes of the past surrounded it, which Quinn saw as portraying ‘a different kind of heroism’ as Alison having overcome her personal disabilities and a difficult childhood, to obtain a first class degree in Fine Arts and become an artist, using her feet to paint.  Waldemar Januszczak writing in The Sunday Times suggested the Lapper statue strikes a  ‘huge blow’ for issues of disability should: ‘be ranked as one of the most significant sculptural moments in Britain’s post-war art history’.  Alison Lapper has also expressed her hope that the statue will make a difference, pointing out:

It puts disability and femininity and motherhood on the map. It’s time to challenge people’s perceptions of these things. I’m hopeful it can make a difference.

Alison Lapper’s statue is an one example of how the world’s disabled women are becoming more visible and more assertive, but as Elena Kochoska points out ‘Women bear a double burden because of their gender and disability’. They continue to be marginalised by gender and disability. They are twice as likely to suffer verbal and physical abuse, more likely to live in poverty, often perceived to be burden on society and have their sexual and reproductive rights violated. When Lapper became pregnant alongside many supportive, positive reactions there were also critics of her decision to have a baby. Alison heard one women, in a supermarket, ask her friend: ‘do you think people like that should be allowed to have children?’ The threat of having her son Parys taken into care, was in the background as he was growing up. She has endured three investigations by social services ‘assessing’ if she was coping and was an: ‘adequate mother’.

In 2012 a huge inflatable recreation of the sculpture was the centrepiece of the London  Paralympic Games. Although generally well received, the work was not without its critics. It was re-erected on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in the Venetian lagoon as part of the Venice Bianniale art exhibition. Despite the figure having been compared to a modern day Madonna, the Catholic church’s representative for cultural heritage felt it was ‘out of place’ and he was ‘perplexed’ by the decision to place it near a church.

Disability has always proved challenging, for those affected, for some of the public and for governments. In Britain in the Medieval period, those disabled by illness or disease were either seen as deserving little sympathy as they were being punished for their sins and, or more charitably considered nearer to God because their sufferings would be rewarded in the next life. With a limited range of work available to them, many disabled women struggled to support themselves and resorted to begging, or charity from their community or churches. Wealthy benefactors set up hospitals, almshouses, and in the 19th century large institutions increased rapidly although many disabled people continued to be cared for by their families.

In the late 19th century, attitudes to disability began to be influenced by the Eugenics movement in many countries. Supporters of Eugenics seized upon a crude Darwinian distortion of the notion of natural selection and ‘the survival of the fittest’ to suggest that anyone who disabled or ‘deficient’ threatened the health of the nation. Although sterilisation programmes were never legalised in the UK, in the USA, marriage of those considered ‘feeble-minded, epileptic, and the mentally ill’ was forbidden in 1896. Between 1907 and 1939, 30,000 Americans were compulsory sterilised; half the procedures took place in California.  In 1930 Julian Huxley, chairman of the British Eugenics Society wrote:

What are we going to do? Every defective man, woman and child is a burden. Every defective is an extra body for the nation to feed and clothe, but produces little or nothing in return.

When Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, a sterilisation policy and later a systematic extermination programme resulted in 400,000 mentally and physically disabled people being sterilised and around 275,000 were murdered.

Disabled women and girls are still being sterilised in many countries including Mexico and the Ukraine.

Since the 1980s routine ultra sound scanning of pregnant mothers has detected many severe abnormalities in babies  prior to birth, recently blood tests and more sophisticated scanning techniques have allowed chromosomal abnormalities such as Down’s Syndrome (DS) also to be detected enabling women to abort disabled babies. Some countries, such as Iceland and Denmark are now envisioning eliminating Down’s Syndrome entirely. Iceland has not had a single child with Downs Syndrome born in the last five years – all have been aborted.

In 2014 98% of Danish babies with Downs Syndrome were aborted, in the UK 90% of those who have had the test chose to have an abortion but not all women take the test, although arguably it is women who do the lion’s share of caring for children with disabilities. The American Journal of Modern Genetics survey in 2011 found just 4% of parents with a Down’s Syndrome child regretted having them, and only 4% of individuals with Down’s ‘expressed sadness about their lives’. Yet concern has been expressed that societies will be unwilling to spend the money needed to enable those with Down’s Syndrome and other disabilities to participate in a diverse and varied socity, if the cheaper option of termination is available.

Estimates suggest that one in five women will experience some form of disability in their lifetime, many more women will be the carers of those experiencing disability; disability rights must therefore be an issue for all women. However, as Liz Carr, a disabled actress and wheelchair user said when talking about the future for disabled people “What chance do people who don’t have a voice, who don’t have support and the resources, have when people label their lives as not having any quality or not worth living?”

Image taken from:

Taken from A History of Women in 100 objects (The History Press: 2018) by Maggie Andrews and Janis Lomas.

The history of the world has been told in objects. But what about the objects that tell the history of women? What are the items that symbolise the journey of women from second-class citizens with no legal rights, no vote and no official status to the powerful people they are today? And what are the objects that still oppress women, even now? From the corset to the contraceptive pill, the bones of the first woman to Rosa Parks’s mugshot and the iconic Mary Quant cape, A History of Women in 100 Objects documents the developing role of women in society through the lens of the inanimate objects that touched women’s lives, were created by women or that at some time – perhaps even still – oppressed them. Woven by two leading historians, this complex, fascinating and vital tale of women and womanhood is told with a lightness of touch and depth of experience that will appeal to all those interested in women’s history.