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The Gender Gap in Public Sculpture

There is almost no public art commemorating history-making women in America. We need to change that.

A statue of Eleanor Roosevelt, located in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Statues of women never get names. They’re archetypes, symbols, muses, forces. The Statue of Liberty. The Statue of Freedom. Day and Night. The Three Graces. Women appear in memorials galore, as the Victims of, the Spirit of, the Contemplation of, the Apotheosis of—but hardly ever as real women from lived history, with first and last names.

Across the hundreds and hundreds of statues in New York City, just five depict historic women. There are 22 statues of men in Central Park alone, but not one (non-fictional) woman. In Washington, D.C., a city chock-a-block with marble memorials, there are five statues depicting women from history: Joan of Arc, Olive Risley Seward, Mary McLeod Bethune, Crown Princess Märtha of Sweden, and Eleanor Roosevelt. (Maybe more if you count some private sculptures, but not more than two or three, here and there.)

Some sculptures have secret names. As Allison Meier writes at Hyperallergic, plenty of New York City’s public goddesses and angels actually do depict real historical women—just anonymously. Meier compiles a compelling list of examples. For example: Emma Stebbins, the sculptor who designed the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park during the 1860s, probably modeled the “Angel of the Waters” figure atop the fountain after her lover, actress Charlotte Cushman. Audrey Munson, a muse who earned the nicknames “Miss Manhattan” and “Exposition Girl” during the 1910s, modeled for more than 15 public sculptures in New York, including the famous “Day” and “Night” sculptures that once presided over the former Penn Station.  

“Long after she and everyone else of this generation shall have become dust, Audrey Munson, who posed for three-fifths of all the statuary of the Panama–Pacific exposition, will live in the bronzes and canvasses of the art centers of the world,” reads a hopeful column published in the New Oxford Item in 1915.

Adolph Alexander Weinman’s The Setting Sun, which was modeled after muse Audrey Munson, appears on the cover of Sunset, The Pacific Monthly magazine.

So the memory of Audrey Munson lives on, indeed—just not as visibly as it might under her own name. What would it take for that to happen? There are lots of reasons why we don’t build statues of women. None of these arguments stands on strong legs. Let’s tease some of them out.

We don’t build statues anymore. It’s hard to know whether this is empirically true (or if so, where it’s true, and when). Maybe there was a golden age of statue building, and it’s behind us now. From the Reconstruction-era rationalizations for the Civil War to the impulsive robber-baron philanthropy of the Gilded Age, the turn of the century probably accounts for a lot of the historical sculpture that exists today. On the other hand, the works built since then probably outnumber the artworks built in the past. (However, a lot of public art made today takes the form of commercial abstract sculpture.)

When we do build figurative public artworks today, though, they almost always depict men. This is a myopia that we have carried forward through to the present.

We build memorials to events, not individuals. Among the national memorials erected over the past 20 years, only the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial stands out as a monument commemorating a single individual. Plans for another monument to an individual, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, are caught up in a conflict over the design and budget. All the other recent national memorials involve war. Even at the state and local levels, monuments to law enforcement and firefighters, or to local tragedies—or to national wars—tend to crowd out positive monuments to individual accomplishments.

Even in an era of diminishing commemoration for people who contributed to history, whenever these lionizing monuments are erected, they depict men.

There isn’t any room for more statues. Memorials can command a lot of acreage, and there is less of it free for development than ever before—one big advantage the past always has on the present. As landscape architecture has evolved as a discipline, it has come to afford more complete experiences and fewer opportunities for secondary historical observations. Parks and plazas are more totalistic, thanks to a kind of design inflation. The High Line couldn’t double as a memorial to Estee Lauder or Diana Vreeland even if you put a statue of one of them there. (Although, when you think about it, the High Line kind of is a monument to high fashion, exemplary luxury, and uncompromising style.)

Carter G. Woodson Memorial Park is an example of a new monument to a historical figure on a small footprint in Washington, D.C. It’s an admirable neighborhood memorial. Frank Benson’s sculpture of Juliana Huxtable—a black artist, trans woman, and emerging New York icon—really should be given a more public plinth than a perch in the New Museum Triennial. Public art can work at a smaller scale. (But, so far, only with men.)

Replacing statues would mean erasing history! One obvious solution to the public-art gender gap is to replace some statues of men with statues of women. This has the added benefit of correcting the historical record to fit the truth. U.S. history is not just the record of the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, as told through the stories of their ranking officers. But that’s largely what it looks like in Washington, D.C., where military equestrian statues occupy virtually every circle and square in the L’Enfant Plan. They’re inoffensive, but these public spaces are wasted on statues that over-tell one story to a people who have long grown oblivious to hearing it. Replacing, say, 10 percent of our most redundant or obscure sculptures would not seriously affect the telling of U.S. history, except to make it slightly more complete.

In New York, Where are the Women? wants to erect two statues, depicting Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, at West 77th Street and Central Park West. “Where else in New York City could you find an intersection where statues honoring principal actors in the battles over the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th Amendments to the United States Constitution can be found?” the plea reads, noting nearby statues of President Abraham Lincoln, President Theodore Roosevelt, and the great Frederick Douglass. There are still opportunities for building new sculptures while complementing what’s already there.

Public history will be fine (and more accurate) with more monuments to women, even if that means scaling back on sculptures celebrating men. Finding the right balance—well, we are a long way off from any balance at all. The battle for parity between the sexes is long and ongoing, and by doing a better job of depicting women, we stand a better chance of bringing this war to a conclusion.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.