SINCE the unveiling of the new Mary Barbour statue in Govan, I’ve been asked several times to comment on the (lack of) representation of women in Scottish public art. I must admit that the question leaves me conflicted. Our memorials are so overwhelmingly biased towards a white, male, imperial-British worldview that making small modifications feels like a course in gender sensitivity training for Donald Trump – too little too late. There’s a genuine part of me that wants to leave statues as they are, as literal monuments to the backward part of Scottish culture.

But we simply can’t afford to be complacent. Currently there are more monuments to animals than to women in our nation’s capital and leaving that unchallenged means we forget the role of the exploited and oppressed in Scottish history.

I wouldn’t say the statue to Mary Barbour has burnished my Scottish pride. But I’m proud that her campaigns happened in the country I was raised in, and I’m equally proud that people here are fighting to remember her legacy by pushing for small concessions in the world’s most conservative artistic medium.

To be clear, I’m not calling this out as an exceptional Scottish problem. Far from it. Across Scotland, there are only 20 statues of women, five of them dedicated to Queen Victoria. It’s a terrible statistic, but it’s an injustice that’s replicated across the UK. According to research by journalist and feminist activist Caroline Criado-Perez, only 158 out of 925 statues listed in the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association (PMSA) database feature a woman as a lone standing statue. Those statues that do feature women are mostly dedicated either to Victoria or to an “unnamed woman”, like Edinburgh’s Mother And Child.

This isn’t even a specifically old-world problem. In America, which is less hidebound by monarchical and aristocratic traditions, things are just as bad, even in the liberal cities. In San Francisco only two women are represented in 87 public statues; it’s five out of 150 in New York City. There are fewer than 400 across the whole USA.

But then again, so what? Does it really matter? It’s probably true to say that most people barely notice public monuments. They are banal features of our landscape that seem to melt into the background of consciousness, feeling more like park benches and streetlamps than political graffiti.

However, that is precisely how ideology works, by making an unnatural political device seem natural. Representation in statue is about how we collectively imagine power. When women’s faces are missing, it reinforces the implicit masculinity of authority. It’s part of a backward culture where women are expected to stay polite and silent in meetings and online, a culture we’re only just beginning to understand, far less change.

Transforming the literal face of power can help change the way women look at our access or lack of access to power. When statues become “natural” features of the built environment, they act as subliminal adverts for all old-fashioned power structures. Understanding and challenging the politics of public monuments is part of the way we reclaim our own history from the kings-and-queens perspective passed down to us in the television version of the “History of Scotland”.

And let’s be clear, adding a few more female monarchs isn’t any sort of change. It’s not just about “women in power”; the type of power matters too. Mary Barbour’s power was the organisational strength of the working-class communities that she came to represent. The statue won’t commemorate her as an individual, but her status as the “face” of an army.

I appreciate that statues need to reward individuals of genuine historical merit, not just momentary celebrities. However, as I’ve said before, many of the figures memorialised in Scotland are far from meritorious by any standard I would recognise.

I’m not saying we should tear them from their plinths – not yet, anyway. But I do believe that we should understand the British imperial politics of the men in bronze that dominate our city centres. We should fight against their simply ornamental status in urban landscapes and educate young people on what these people did and why they were commemorated.

In Ireland, Spain or Germany, progressive local historians might do walking tours that feature statues or street names in honour of great revolutionaries or anti-fascist fighters. That’s not possible in Scotland, because there are none. We barely do anything to honour the good parts of our history in public displays. In the absence of alternatives, I propose, instead, that we should have walking tours in Glasgow and Edinburgh that expose the evil deeds of the upper-class patriarchs that we continue to honour as heroes.

In our political culture, we’re always constrained by old expectations of what leadership looks like, what power looks like, and what representation means. For ordinary people in Scotland to challenge the rich and powerful, we need a new political revolution both in symbols and in practice. So, even at the risk of legitimising a reactionary medium, let’s commemorate in bronze all the many women in our history who have reached down into everyday life and raised other women up with them.