Lessons on women’s history were sparse at best in my early eduction, but that didn’t stop me. I read voraciously on the subject and later took women’s studies classes throughout college.
Yet recently — while attending a new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York called “Rebel Women” — I was forced to confront how little I knew about some of the women who’d shaped a city where I work every day, a city I love.
On display were biographies, prints and photographs of about 15 of the city’s most rebellious women from the Victorian era: those like Elizabeth Jennings, below left, who in 1854 — more than a century before Rosa Parks — refused to dismount a streetcar because of her race; and Victoria Woodhull, below right, who in 1872 became the first woman ever to run for president.
These women sought what many women today seek: professional status, racial and social equality, and sexual freedom. They were my kind of people! So how was it possible that I hadn’t heard of at least half of them?
“You’re not alone,” Alicia Glen, the deputy mayor of New York, said to me as we walked through the exhibit. “We have to have physical representation,” she explained, to help fill the gap in our collective memory.
She was talking about statues — of which the world’s greatest women are lacking.
In the United States, there are about 5,200 public statues depicting historical figures, according to The Smithsonian’s Art Inventories Catalog. Very few of those — fewer than 400, according to one account in The Washington Post — are of women.
In Washington, D.C., where you can’t swing a “future is female” tote without hitting a carved effigy, only five public statues depict women.
And in New York, there are about 145 monuments of men but only five that honor real women. (Sorry, Mother Goose and Alice in Wonderland, fictional characters don’t count).
But there is a renewed push to remedy this monumental gender gap (pun intended).
After a multiyear effort, statues of the suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony are now bound for Central Park. A new program called She Built New York plans to commission a public monument dedicated to a lucky New York City woman.
Coming soon to Richmond, Va., is a monument called “Voices from the Garden” that will pay tribute to hundreds of historic women who helped shape Virginia and the United States. And recently, in Salt Lake City, the website Statues.com introduced an effort to create busts of 20 trailblazing American women.
For the last decade, Michelle Duster, the great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells, a pioneer of modern journalism, has led a crowdfunding campaign to bring a monument of her ancestor to fruition in Chicago — which has only one statue of a woman in its parks, installed about a month ago.
That monument of Wells will be erected next year.