For Three Suffragists, a Monument Well Past Due
For Three Suffragists, a Monument Well Past Due
Across the country, monuments honoring racist figures are being defaced and toppled. In New York’s Central Park, one statue is taking shape that aims to amend not only racial but also gender disparities in public art: A 14-foot-tall bronze monument of Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, three of the more prominent leaders in the nationwide fight for women’s right to vote.
Called the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument, it is to be unveiled Aug. 26 to commemorate the 100th anniversary this month of the constitutional amendment that finally guaranteed women that right. The sculpture depicts the three figures gathered around a table for what seems to be a discussion or a strategy meeting. Anthony stands in the middle, holding a pamphlet that reads “Votes for Women”; Stanton, seated to her left, holds a pen, presumably taking notes; and Truth appears to be in midsentence.
“I wanted to show women working together,” said Meredith Bergmann, the sculptor chosen from dozens of artists to create the statue. “I kept thinking of women now, working together in some kitchen on a laptop, trying to change the world.”
It will be the park’s first — and only — monument honoring real women, located on Literary Walk. In its 167-year history, the park has been a leafy, lush home to about two dozen statues of men, mostly white, and fictional or mythical female characters (Alice in Wonderland, Shakespeare’s Juliet, and the Angel of the Waters, the winged woman atop Bethesda Fountain) but no historical women.
New York City as a whole hasn’t been very inclusive either: Of the 150 statues honoring historical figures, only five depict women, according to She Built NYC, the city’s official campaign, started last year, to increase female representation in public art. And in 2011, just over seven percent of the nearly 5,200 public outdoor statues across the country represented women, according to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Art Inventories Catalog.
“The fact that nobody, for a long time, even noticed that women were missing in Central Park — what does that say about the invisibility of women?” said Pam Elam, president of Monumental Women. “There is a responsibility to not only create a beautiful work of art but to have that art reflect the reality of the lives of all the people who see it.”
In 2014, a group of volunteers created Monumental Women (initially called the Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Statue Fund Inc.), a nonprofit with a mission of campaigning and raising funds for the suffragist statue in Central Park. Though the journey from concept to creation ended up being a long and winding one, filled with criticisms and setbacks.
Ms. Bergmann said it was “pretty humbling” to be making such a monumental work, adding that every single creative decision was carefully considered.
In the research phase, Ms. Bergmann, who in 2003 created the Boston Women’s Memorial, featuring Abigail Adams, Phillis Wheatley and Lucy Stone, read a lot, she said, and spoke to Stanton’s great-great-granddaughter, Coline Jenkins-Sahlin, for more insight.
She then spent months creating clay models of the monument, getting them approved and then creating various different molds for the molten metal.
For their faces, she drew from multiple sources. “I never copy a photograph,” she said, “but I take all the photographs available and study them and try to come up with a face that will express more than one moment in the life of this person, with hints of their youthful face, their old face, their angry face and their happy face.”
Their outfits carry Easter eggs — symbols and clues that speak to the social context or their personalities, Ms. Bergmann explained. Sunflower motifs are carved into Stanton’s dress because she had used the pseudonym Sunflower when writing editorials for The Lily newspaper in Seneca Falls, N.Y., Ms. Bergmann said. Anthony has a cameo around her neck depicting Minerva — the Roman goddess of strategy and wisdom. Truth wears her signature shawl — the tassels appear to be blowing in the wind — and a striped brocade jacket with laurel wreaths woven in to symbolize victory and honor.
That they are all attired in long skirts and dresses is significant too. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, women fighting for social reforms — including Stanton — adopted what came to be known as the “Bloomer costume,” knee-length dresses worn over trousers, which offered freedom and respite from the more constricting corsets and floor-length dresses that were standard at the time.
“Stanton once said how wonderful it was to be able to climb a flight of stairs holding a baby in one arm and a candle in the other without having to hold up 10 pounds of wool skirt and petticoats,” Bergmann noted.
But the outfits were such radical departures from the norm that they invited intense mockery and distracted from broader conversations about women’s rights, so the suffrage fighters gave them up. Ms. Bergmann said this informed her own choice to have the statues in voluminous skirts.
Though the campaign to install the statue took more than six years (seven if you include the months of discussions that took place before the nonprofit was formed), Monumental Women selected Ms. Bergmann’s design in 2018, giving the artist two years — a short time in the sculpting world, she noted — to bring the suffragists to life.
The proposal that was approved consisted of Anthony and Stanton, and a long scroll cascading from their work desk containing quotations from more than 20 other suffragists.
“The initial commission was to create statues of these two women,” Ms. Bergmann explained, and the scroll, which included quotations from 11 women of color (including the educator Anna Julia Cooper and the journalist Ida B. Wells), was a way to also recognize the many other suffragists of the movement.
The original callout for the commission noted that the sculpture should “honor the memory of others, besides Stanton and Anthony, who helped advance the cause of woman suffrage over the 72 -year battle.”
But when the city’s Public Design Commission approved Ms. Bergmann’s design last March, it wanted her to nix the scroll and just focus on Anthony and Stanton, Ms. Elam said. The design was also heavily criticized for placing only white women on the pedestal — essentially continuing the erasure of Black women’s contributions to the suffrage movement.
“Everything about this,” Ms. Elam said, “was not easy. It started with the parks department, then it went to the Central Park Conservancy, then the public design commission, then the Landmarks Preservation Commission and all the community boards that surround Central Park. It shouldn’t have been so hard.”
Last August, in the wake of the controversy, Monumental Women shifted gears and decided to include a third figure — Truth, the African-American abolitionist and suffragist. The commission approved the new design in October, giving Ms. Bergmann less than a year to create the reimagined sculpture. So far the group said they have raised a total of $1.5 million for the statue, and did not receive any money from the city.
The city’s Public Design Commission declined to comment for this article.
When Monumental Women unveils the statue later this month (in a ceremony at 8 a.m. on Aug. 26 that can be streamed at monumentalwomen.org), the organization said it plans to issue a challenge to municipalities all over the country to include more women and people of color in their public spaces. Part of the nonprofit’s mission is to help other communities navigate the kind of red tape and bureaucratic hurdles that they encountered. The nonprofit will also kick off an online educational campaign and has proposed providing books on women’s history to all of New York City’s public school libraries.
“For the people who might think ‘OK, you’ve broken the bronze ceiling, good for you, now your work is done’ — no, absolutely not, we are here to stay,” Ms. Elam said.