Not one woman gets her own pedestal among Central Park’s statues
There are 50 statues in New York’s Central Park, one of the world’s most visited spots. Not one of them is of a woman who exists outside of fiction.
There are marble monuments to dozens of men, most of them real, but not a single statue commemorating the life or contributions of a real-life woman. Even the fictional female characters – Alice in Wonderland, Juliet Capulet and Mother Goose – were created by men.
Among the marble and bronze population of Central Park, you’ll find Shakespeare and Beethoven, Simón Bolívar and Alexander Hamilton. You’ll even find Balto, the hero sled dog who delivered diphtheria medicine to the town of Nome, Alaska, in 1925.
To be clear: you can find a statue of a real-life dog, but no statues of real-life women.
This is not simply a Central Park problem, nor is it a New York City problem. Across the United States, women are staggeringly underrepresented in our tangible and visible efforts to mark significant moments and people in American history. Nationwide, fewer than 8 percent of the public outdoor statues commemorating individuals are of women. Of the 100 outstanding citizens memorialized in Statuary Hall in the Capitol Building in Washington, only nine are women.
Central Park, however, stands out above the rest. It sits at the center of the city that considers itself the center of the world and that attracts 40 million tourists every year. The absence of women is glaring and, frankly, embarrassing.
Efforts are underway to rectify the situation. Coline Jenkins is the great-great-granddaughter of suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the president of the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Fund. With the support of women’s rights advocates like Gloria Steinem and Lily Ledbetter, the foundation is launching a campaign this month to erect statues of Stanton and her fellow women’s rights trailblazer Susan B. Anthony in Central Park.
“This is a public forum, and in a public forum, everybody’s voice should be heard,” says Jenkins, of the park. “These women had real voices. These women talked about very important things, about women’s inclusion. They represent a very large movement in the U.S., which resulted in the inclusion of women in new areas of American life.”
Jenkins is not alone in her efforts to increase the number of stone and metal women in public spaces. Lynette Long is the founder of Equal Visibility Everywhere, an organization dedicated to solving the statue problem. She sees it more than a matter of how we tell our history but also how we shape generations of future leaders. The invisibility of women – the overrepresentation of men – Long argues, “inflates male entitlement and diminishes the confidence of women. When girls and women don’t see themselves on our currency or our stamps, or memorialized in our statuary, the message is clear: You are invisible. You don’t matter.”
When we whitewash the story of America, telling a sanitized version of how our country came to be what it is, we don’t simply do a disservice to students. We don’t only limit their abilities to make better choices, to avoid repeating the mistakes of history. We also deny and dishonor the real struggles, sacrifices and contributions of the people whose stories we ignore.
Hundreds of women deserve to be celebrated in stone and metal in Central Park. There are thousands of women whose contributions to their country and to the world merit permanent memorialization in cities and towns all over America. To pretend otherwise is to repeat a mistake that has been made throughout history — to claim that women’s stories and experiences, their abilities and achievements, are insignificant.
As Virginia Woolf famously mused, there was no woman equivalent to Shakespeare because women in Shakespeare’s time were not given the same education and artistic opportunities as men were. Similarly, there was no female Beethoven – that we know of – because while there were certainly girl musical prodigies in Germany in the 1700s, their preternatural talents were not nurtured and cultivated, simply because they were girls. The loss to theater and to music, to history, is surely a huge one.
This is not Elizabethan England or 18th century Germany. We know better. We know that women’s contributions to history matter, and that in carving our national history in stone, we ought to include those contributions. It’s time that Central Park – and other public spaces all over the country – reflect that knowledge.
At the very least, we ought have more human women than male dogs in Central Park.
PHOTO: The statue of Dr. James Marion Sims, revered as the father of modern gynecology, stands on the 5th Avenue side of New York’s Central Park, March 20, 2014. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri