A Monument to Women’s Suffrage Receives Unanimous Approval Despite Controversy

Maquette of Meredith Bergmann’s statue of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony; the final sculpture will be 15 feet tall (all images by author)

Central Park is one of New York City’s most trafficked destinations, but not one of its 29 statues represents a historical female figure. That will soon change.

Yesterday, the Public Design Commission (PDC) unanimously approved the installation of a new women’s rights monument after months of bitter public debate ensnared the project. The subject of controversy was history itself. For months, critics have accused the statue of whitewashing the fight for women’s suffrage by visually suggesting the dominance of white women in the movement while largely ignoring their Black counterparts.

The dispute was amplified by a New York Times article published in January that quoted Gloria Steinem, among others, as saying the monument was “not enough.” The feminist leader added that Anthony and Stanton looked like they were “standing on the names of these other women.”

Originally, the proposed statue depicted Anthony standing beside a seated Stanton at her writing desk. From the tabletop, a long scroll unfurled, barreling off the monument plinth and onto the park lawn. Written upon the paper was a list that named and quoted 22 other women who contributed to the women’s suffrage movement. Seven of those women named were Black, including Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, and Mary Church Terrell.

The lack of respect — resigning these women to literal footnotes in a history coauthored by Anthony and Stanton — struck some as a recapitulation of how Black women were marginalized during the suffrage movement. (Recall that no Black women were invited to the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. Only one Black man attended: Fredrick Douglass.)

And leaders of the “Votes for Women” movement were not immune to racial prejudice, despite many having their roots in social justice as devout abolitionists. Stanton became a particularly vicious attacker of the 15th Amendment as it became more apparent after the Civil War that women’s right to vote would occur after Black men received their rights.

She once said that it was “better to be the slave of an educated white man than of a degraded black one.” Stanton historians have been quick to point out that the above quote has been excerpted from a larger speech the suffragist made supporting Black women, in which she said that “if the two millions of Southern black women are not to be secured in their rights of person, property, wages, and children, their emancipation is but another form of slavery.” However, she was also prone to calling Black men “Sambos” and incipient rapists.

When it became clear that the women’s suffrage movement would have to take a momentary backseat, Anthony told Douglass this during an 1866 meeting: “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.”

One of the inscriptions included on the revised version of the monument

Advocates for the Anthony and Stanton monument remain largely undaunted by this chapter in history, observing that these women were still products of their time despite their progressive bent. (It should be noted, however, that there were other suffrage associations that supported the 15th Amendment, including Boston’s American Woman Suffrage Association led by the former abolitionist Lucy Stone.)

But the notion that the Central Park monument would address this fraught side of suffragist history was disingenuous from the start. The project is funded by the Stanton and Anthony Statue Fund, which includes Coline Jenkins (Stanton’s granddaughter) as one of its vice presidents. For Jenkins and the other women supporting the statue, Anthony and Stanton are gateways for younger generations to access the history of women’s suffrage — good and bad.

Lynn Sherr is an award-winning journalist who spent more than 30 years at ABC News with investigative programs like 20/20; now, she serves as the Statue Fund’s director. Speaking with Hyperallergic at City Hall, she characterizes allegations of racism against Anthony and Stanton “fake history.”

“Their goal was universal suffrage — the right to vote based on citizenship, not race or gender or anything else,” she said. “They understood that leaving the matter to the states, and not the federal government, would result in laws like Jim Crow across the country.”

During her remarks to the design commission, which oversees approval of any permanent monuments in the city, Sherr attributed the racism in the suffrage movement to the generation of leaders after Anthony and Stanton. “Toward the end of the suffrage campaign, as white supremacy gained strength during ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, new leaders made questionable compromises,” she noted. “To suggest that twentieth-century bigotry defined the goals and actions of Stanton and Anthony in the 1800s is glib at best, bad history at worst.”

Nevertheless, the monument’s sculptor Meredith Bergmann took criticism to heart when revising her sculpture for PDC approval. Most importantly, she has removed Stanton’s list of names form the statue and the inclusion of a ballot box. Bergmann also revised the plinth to include quotes from the two suffragists. More tellingly, the statue’s subtitle has changed. The revised monument described Anthony and Stanton more broadly as “women’s rights pioneers” without reference to the larger suffrage movement.

“Do you think the average passerby will understand what this monument is about just by looking at it?” asked the art historian Harriet Senie while examining a maquette of the revised statue outside the PDC’s meeting room.

“It’s a travesty,” Senie remarked. With nearly thirty years of experience studying public art, she thinks the loss of identifiable symbols of the suffrage movement will leave onlookers puzzled.

The Statue Fund’s president Pam Elam was less worried about this loss, telling Hyperallergic that the monument is meant to inspire a curiosity that will lead viewers to google information about Anthony and Stanton later. (An online educational campaign will accompany the statue’s unveiling.)

Addressing the PDC, Elam took a more celebratory tone. She heralded the monument’s ability to “break the bronze ceiling” of statuary in Central Park. The 15-feet-high sculpture will be placed on Literary Walk opposite the statue of writer Fitz-Greene Halleck. The suffragists will be the only historical women figured in the park, joining fictional women like Alice from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Juliet from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Girl Scouts address the Public Design Commission in favor of the monument

“We have literally grown up fighting for this fight,” said three Girl Scouts who delivered their testimony to the commission in favor of the monument. “Wearing sunflowers in our hair, we have engaged with parkgoers for the past three years.”

Feedback from the PDC was mixed but mostly supportive. Commissioner Mary Valverde, who is also a sculptor, aimed most of her criticism at the artist. She asked Bergmann why Anthony and Stanton looked out of proportion from each other, and why the two figures were facing outward toward the audience. (Bergmann responded saying that the two suffragists were vastly different sizes in real life, and that Valverde had previously suggested that she change the women’s poses.)

Valverde later asked why there was no signage specifying when Anthony and Stanton lived. This visibly frustrated Bergmann, who responded in reference to the monument’s controversy: “If we have dates, then why can’t we also say that they were abolitionists?” (At this point an official from the city’s Parks and Recreation Department interrupted to note that statues in Central Park typically do not include dates.)

Both Valverde and the PDC’s executive director, Justin Garrett Moore, ended their statements by recommending that the Statue Fund diversify its ranks. “Going forward, the Statue Fund needs a more inclusive approach,” Valverde said. “I want the committee to be more diverse and the artists more diverse.”

Regardless of controversy or critique, the PDC voted unanimously to approve the women’s rights monument. The vote moved members of the audience to tears, many of whom have fought for such recognition for years, if not decades.

Why had this one monument courted such intense opposition? The statue’s sculptor has a few ideas. “It’s about the election of Barack Obama, the rise of Donald Trump, and the advocacy of groups like Black Lives Matter,” Bergmann said. “Public art has become high profile in a way like never before.”

Before the vote, the artist carried the sort of meditative expression one might have before entering a boxing match: calm if also extremely anxious. Approval for this project was supposed to take only a month, but the women’s rights monument took many more months to proceed.

After undergoing an intense period of scrutiny and revisions that could appease the Statue Fund, the commissioners, and the public, was Bergmann ultimately happy with the monument?

The artist took a deep, long pause before answering: “Yes.”

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