After months of acrimonious public debate surrounding the final designs for Central Park’s forthcoming permanent monument to women’s suffrage, the critics have been heard.
For almost a year, controversy has plagued the statue, which some have accused of whitewashing history due to its spotlight on the suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony without paying equal tribute to the many women of color who contributed to the movement. Looking to resolve their row, the group financing the monument announced it will now include a statue for Sojourner Truth, the abolitionist and women’s rights activist best-known for her rousing “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech first delivered at the 1851 Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio.
“Our goal has always been to honor the diverse women in history who fought for equality and justice and who dedicated their lives to fight for Women’s Rights,” Pam Elam said in a statement. The president of the Monumental Women’s Statue Fund, the group financing the sculpture, added: “It is fitting that Anthony, Stanton, and Truth stand together in this statue as they often did in life.”
The first designs of the monument proposed by artist Meredith Bergmann featured 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 toward a ballot box. 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.
Public reactions to the sculpture were not positive. Gloria Steinem told the New York Times that “it is not only that it is not enough, [it’s that it looks as if Anthony and Stanton] are standing on the names of these other women.”
A second version of the monument was presented to the Public Design Commission (PDC) in March after the committee, which is responsible for approving the New York City’s permanent public art projects, asked Bergmann to nix the list and ballot box.
Feedback from the PDC was mixed but mostly supportive. Commissioner Mary Valverde, who is also a sculptor, disliked the new design and joined the PDC’s executive director, Justin Garrett Moore, in asking the Statue Fund to 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 the 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.
The Statue Fund began in 2014 with a mission to break the “bronze ceiling” of public art by bringing the first statue of real women to Central Park. Only 3% of the city’s 150 statues depicting historical figures include women, although that number will more than double in the next few years thanks to New York’s $10 million She Built NYC initiative. The park currently features no historical women but statues of fictional girls like Alice from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Juliet from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
“The three figures each represent an essential aspect of activism,” Bergmann said in a statement about the updated monument. “Sojourner Truth is speaking, Susan B. Anthony is bringing documentation of injustice, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton is poised to write. Girls and boys who encounter this monument will see a positive image of diverse women working together to change the world.”
An updated image of the statue was not immediately available upon request.
Once completed, the suffragist statue is expected to be installed on Central Park’s Literary Walk by 2020. The 15-feet-high sculpture will be placed opposite the statue of writer Fitz-Greene Halleck. Monumental Women plans to soon embark on its next project, creating a New York City Women’s Rights trail throughout all five boroughs.