Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument unveiling in Central Park, New York, August 26, 2020 (Photo: Lala Pop)
The tensions between public monuments and history frequently orbit the question of “historical faithfulness” or “accuracy.” The controversy surrounding the new women’s rights monument in Central Park is an example of these tensions. Sculpted by Meredith Bergmann, the monument represents suffragettes Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth. It was unveiled on August 26th, 2020 to commemorate the 100th year anniversary of the 19th amendment of the United States Constitution. Titled “The Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument,” the sculpture is the first depicting real women in the park.
It could be argued that the sculpture, just like these women, is pioneering. Indeed, one of the purposes of the non-profit behind the sculpture, Monumental Women, is to “break the bronze ceiling” and increase awareness of women’s history through a national educational campaign that includes public art. Through these efforts, the non-profit aims to counter a trend in the telling of history, a trend that has erased women from it or relegated them outside of “mainstream history.”
In spite of these good intentions, the monument has sparked controversy. Initially, the design only included Stanton and Anthony, an action that plays into the all too common erasure of the contributions of women who are not white. When Sojourner Truth was added to the design as a response to the criticism, a group of scholars sent a letter to the non-profit, concerned that, “If Sojourner Truth is added in a manner that simply shows her working together with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Stanton’s home, it could obscure the substantial differences between white and black suffrage activists, and would be misleading.” Despite the letter’s requests, the final design does include Truth “working together” with Anthony and Stanton. She sits across from Stanton, both seemingly in mid-conversation, while Anthony stands between them. The sculpture paints an image of collaboration and harmony.
Monumental Women wants to use public monuments to move forward a “full and fair historical record that reflects and respects the contributions of all women and people of color,” as the non-profit’s president Pam Elam expressed during the monument’s unveiling. So too does the criticism about the way Truth is included worry about how faithful that representation is or, rather, how dangerous misrepresentation is. And though “obvious,” it is therefore crucial to note that Truth was not just the subject to misogyny, but also racism. The speech which she is most known for, “Ain’t I A Woman?” points out the different treatment she, as a black woman, was subject to:
Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
The inclusion and recognition of difference in women’s rights circles have not been fully solved. For example, the Women’s March in 2017 received criticism due to its lack of commitment to issues that disproportionately affect black women, such as high maternal deaths. (Incidentally, the “pussyhats” that were worn during the March were also criticized due to its erasure of trans women). This is why the criticism of the monument should also be contextualized within contemporary discussions amongst women’s rights and feminist circles. The erasure of the inequalities amongst Truth and Stanton and Anthony in the sculpture is therefore perceived as reflective of these issues. A monument, as a materialization of a fleeting moment, as an object meant to facilitate present remembrance, and as a sculpture that will stay in the park for decades, reproduces this erasure in the present and will reproduce it in the future.
What the monument wants to depict is different women united for a common cause. What the monument does not depict for many is the problem. It depicts what people hope they could remember, instead of what was. In her excellent article about the monument, Erin Thompson writes that, “With its gentle portraits of Stanton, Anthony, and Truth, the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument is far from that image of a bloodied protester. In following the model of the very kind of traditional monument it means to replace, it leaves out the pain and the struggle of the women’s movement.” It likewise leaves out difference.
The question that should thus be further explored is, what do people want from monuments? Should they be mimetic of history? Or should they stand as a memento of a significant historical moment? Should they celebrate a figure, or that figure’s accomplishments? If people desire an accurate history (perhaps an impossible task) are monuments even sufficiently capable of encapsulating the disjunctures, tensions, and pain of a history?
During the monument’s unveiling, Elam declared that, “One statue in one park can light a fuse that sparks the imagination and ambition of a child who sees herself in that statue. That one statue can start a chain reaction leading to an explosion of knowledge and possibilities. Monumental Women is proud to light that fuse today.” When I began to write this piece, I watched Beyoncé’s video for her song “Brown Skin Girl,” featuring artists WizKid and SAINt JHN, as well Beyoncé’s daughter Blue Ivy. The lyrics do not refer to any historical moment, but the beauty of a girl with brown skin. However, I began to wonder, is this a more efficient example of Elam’s desire to “spark the imagination and ambition of a child”? In the second verse, Beyoncé sings:
Pose like a trophy when Naomi [Campbell]’s walkin’
She need an Oscar for that pretty dark skin
Pretty like Lupita [Nyong’o] when the cameras close in
Drip broke the levee when my Kellys roll in [a play on Kelly Rowland’s name]
I think tonight, she might braid her braids
Melanin too dark to throw her shade (Shade)
She minds her business and wines her waist
Gold like 24K, okay
Are monuments the best space to “light that fuse”? Is a different artistic language, like Beyoncé’s music video, not better suited to “spark the imagination and ambition” of young women? Could public remembrance live a more energetic life in a different medium?
Suggested further reading.
This piece was first published on the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies’ blog on April 20th, 2021.