Break the Bronze Ceiling

On monuments to women

In New York City, only five of the 150 (or so) monuments to historical figures are of women. The new Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument that debuted in August in Central Park—depicting Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth— is Central Park’s first statue of real women, as well as its first Black person. (Seriously.) The existing gals are Alice in Wonderland and a hideous Mother Goose, plus Juliet with Romeo and some nymphs and angels and things. (Oh and there’s also a dog, Balto.)

Similarly, in London, of 265 statues of historical figures, there are only 17 of women. Across the UK, only 3% of statues of women are not mythical or royal.

So: it’s an uncomplicated good that cities and citizens are newly invested in correcting this imbalance. Here in NYC, municipal initiatives like She Built NYC, led by Chirlane McCray, and private organizations like Monumental Women, have made it their mission to “break the bronze ceiling.” In these brand new commissions—and in vacuums left behind by recent topplings of hateful racists—there is both thrilling opportunity and genuine will to honor our magnificent foremothers in thoughtful, healing, authentic, and joyful ways. So why do we still absolutely suck at doing so?

Reviewing a recent spate of monuments to women gone awry it’s plain to see why collective memorialization and public art, history, and storytelling are both frustratingly convoluted and deeply consequential. These are stories of good intentions and bad faith, political jockeying, artistic elitism and populism, magical thinking, and, of course, old-fashioned misogyny.

Returning first to Women’s Rights Pioneers, now joining a bunch of dudes on Literary Walk in Central Park. In addition to honoring real women who did real, good things, it is also the first new permanent sculpture in NYC in nearly 70 years. And it took 7 long years of roadblocks and redesigns to achieve—which is part of why this bland, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-bronze is as unimaginative as it is an unworthy memorial. Long story short: it was originally designed to include only Anthony and Stanton, which met with public outrage for leaving out the contributions of Black women. A subsequent redesign included Sojourner Truth, but she was scaled smaller than the other women and set apart from them, as if just listening. The final design, on view, shows Truth at the table with Anthony and Stanton. Though the three did once meet, this ahistorical tableau collapses their work—and especially Truth’s, who reckoned with Anthony and Stanton’s trenchant anti-Blackness—into one sanitized, kumbaya moment. Critics remind that this conciliatory tone obscures the racial tensions that plagued not only the suffrage movements but also every election since amendments including Black Americans’ right to vote were passed. (Many more details on this can be read about here.)

This triumphalist sanitization is also true formally. The women are depicted with their historical likenesses, but even so are conventionally attractive, dressed respectably, and exude calm, even emotionlessness. Truth has knitting in her lap, and Anthony’s handbag is next to her. It’s all very lady-palatable. Where is the outrage that animated this feminism? Sojourner Truth’s famous “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech is full of rousing emotion, the first tool in her kit. Erin Thompson, writing in The Nation, writes that “Early feminists horrified the public.” Yet the Pioneers Monument is “designed to soothe. It invites you to light a scented candle rather than to burn your bra.” (Also: my aunt and I saw it together and she said it looks like Susan B. Anthony is a server saying “What can I get you ladies?” LOL)

For the first statue in 70 years, you’d think the inoffensive bronze, the static, glorified peaceable gesture, this sense of “we did it!” finality could be improved upon as a remembrance strategy. Part of the problem may be that the non-profit Monumental Women, which donated the statue, is run by wealthy, educated white women, whose right to vote has not been called into question since the 1920 amendment passed, hence the early design. I think their willingness to listen to criticisms and respond to it is admirable. But tinkering this way and that with a monumental bronze, finding just the right honoree, really is not the answer; it’s almost besides the point. Historian Sally Roesch Wagner, a critic of the work, feels that when it comes to the feminist movement, monuments to individuals are a “standing historic lie.” Women’s rights struggles have been about solidarity and strength in numbers; this is also their unique power. In short, it is high time to break out of the mold and ask our most brilliant artists to imagine new ways of memorializing ideas, events, and people. (Monument Lab, based in Philly, with support from the Mellon Foundation, is doing just that. On a smaller scale, just think about the ingenuity of Kehinde Wiley’s and Amy Sherald’s portraits of the Obamas after the centuries of “terrible” presidential portraits, to quote Maurice Berger.)

However—humans and governments tend to get in the way of imagination and creativity. First of all, deciding who (or what) should be honored is incredibly fraught (again, a good reason to leave this individualized approach behind). At its inception, She Built NYC ran an open poll to determine which previously overlooked women would be given monuments. Out of 2000 nominations, 7 amazing women were chosen and these works are forthcoming (no timeline is given). (Though the mockup for Shirley Chisholm in Prospect Park gives me so much hope!) However, the woman who received the most nominations was Mother Cabrini, the Roman Catholic nun who is considered the patron saint of immigrants and is a major figure for Italian-Americans. Despite the results, She Built NYC reasoned that Cabrini would not get a new commission because she already enjoys public recognition in a dedicated shrine in Northern Manhattan. Swift backlash and a year of drama ensued. Eventually, Italian-American Governor Cuomo stepped in and fast-tracked a new, separate commission. An Italian-American artist couple was chosen to create a sculpture for Battery Park, and it was unveiled by Cuomo in October 2020. I got nothing against Mother Cabrini, but…that doesn’t smell right. (And it’s a goofy sculpture.)

People also very much disagree on what public art should look like, and artists are entrusted with an impossibly thorny task. In 2018, a sculpture of J. Marion Sims was removed from Central Park, after years of organizing. Sims had been called the “father of modern gynecology,” though much of his pioneering success lay in his coerced experimentation on enslaved women. As part of a new (and short-lived) mayoral initiative on monuments, the city agreed not only to remove the work but to commission a replacement by a Black artist, with an open call and in collaboration with historians, art experts, community representatives, and activists. The four finalists included three highly regarded contemporary artists and one lesser-known sculptor. The mostly art-world jury ultimately chose a design by Simone Leigh (who’d recently shown at the Guggenheim and Whitney), a large, abstracted silhouette including a planted field of bluebells, called After Anarcha, Lucy, Betsey, Henrietta, Laure, and Anonymous. But the clear community favorite was Vinnie Bagwell, who proposed an 18-foot bronze angel called Victory Over Sims. The outcry over the choice was so intense that after a few days Leigh withdrew her proposal, and Bagwell secured the commission (the panel’s choice was advisory, not binding). Bagwell was so popular with the community precisely because of her “outsider” status; for example, Bagwell attended the vote and presented her proposal in person, whereas the other three superstar artists did not, sending either video presentations or proxies.

In a park filled with mostly identically styled sculptures, Leigh’s rendering is a breath of fresh air. It honors exploited and unnamed Black women with a haunting poignancy, offering a healing place to rest, or to cultivate new life, among the lovely bluebells. In my (elitist art-world eyes) it’s a clear winner. On the other hand, I can completely understand why a community who had been so invested in removing the horrible hulking Sims would not be interested in evolving the aesthetic stakes of monument-making at the very moment that power shifts into their hands. No need to imply poetically when you can, simply, declare “Victory Over Sims.” More than that, I think the feeling of true democracy that this initiative allowed needed to be taken all the way, not interfered upon by out-of-touch experts (of the kind who likely would have been responsible for placing Sims there in the first place). In all, I think the city and Leigh made the right decision to listen to and honor the community who will live with the work and who has invested so much time and thought into this project. This listening, in and of itself, is a remembrance strategy.

What’s so telling (and unfortunate) is that even with all the money and effort and infrastructure that was involved in this project, it was still almost impossible to get right. Everyone felt alienated from one another, even under a united goal. And just like with Cabrini, a small minority “won.” It’s not to say this is always a bad thing, but it is difficult to imagine how it can improve—consensus is very elusive. And indeed, most monuments arise out of the small efforts of caring citizens. (The big civic memorials are a different beast, for another essay!) In a short walking span in Riverside Park, there’s a statue of Joan of Arc, one of Hungarian revolutionary Louis Kossuth, and a Warsaw Ghetto memorial. Each of these was lobbied and fundraised for by citizen-led groups, then granted approval by the city. Their own mini sagas, I’m sure. And ultimately, they’re easy to miss. But I had a fun half hour learning about Kossuth from the “liberty-loving Americans of Magyar origin” responsible for his statue. This symphony of interests and affiliations and voices is great—as long as it is, in fact, open to anyone and free of crooked meddling.

In any event, it is plain to see that ordinary people actually care a great deal about public art and monuments. Imagine if a new 18-foot monument was proposed for your corner? Unlike legislation or elected officials, monuments are meant to be permanent, and they’re meant to speak through time. You look at civic monuments and you’re supposed to feel History. Something about that bronze (typically) patina, frozen in time, larger than life…monuments are built to outlive us all and convey authority in any context. It’s a lot to live with. On the contrary, though, monuments are so thoroughly about the present—all its lofty ambitions, broken systems, and competing interests. Who won that one day, that last fight. Of course 20, 50, 100 years on, none of these details will be of any significance. Will it matter that Sojourner Truth never actually sat at the table with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton? Monuments like these are no more embodiments of history than a single old photograph; no matter how striking the image, you only see what’s in the frame.

I’m going to leave you with the last and most tragic of the women sculpture controversies from last year. Mary Wollstonecraft is widely considered the mother of feminism, but no statue in London commemorated her. After years of fundraising, her monument debuted: a very tiny, very nude Mary Wollstonecraft emerging from a goopy ether. Mary, we’re sorry.

Semi-related things I’ve been thinking about:

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