Statuary against sexism

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With the She Built NYC campaign, New York City continues to address historical injustice through public monuments


  • Eleanor Roosevelt statue in Riverside Park. Photo: Eden, Janine and Jim, via flickr

  • The Harriet Tubman Memorial in Harlem. Photo: denisbin, via flickr

  • Statue of novelist Gertrude Stein in Bryant Park. Photo: Catherine Cronin, via flickr

  • Wall Street’s “Fearless Girl.” Photo: Nathan Hughes Hamilton, via flickr

  • Joan of Arc in Riverside Park. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

[She Built NYC aims to] “more accurately show the diversity in the people who helped make New York City so great.”

First lady Chirlane McCray

New York City is dotted with statues, so it would be easy for a casual observer to miss the startling lack of monuments to women. However, according to a recent count by Gothamist, there are only five statues honoring female figures out of the over 1,000 across the five boroughs. To alleviate the problem, NYC first lady Chirlane McCray announced the She Built NYC project in June, to “more accurately show the diversity in the people who helped make New York City so great.”

While there are only five statues honoring specific historic women throughout the city, they do not represent the totality of statues representing women. Central Park features many depictions of women in statue form, though none are named. The statues in the park instead represent fictional characters, such as Alice in Wonderland, or are nameless angels and nymphs.

Another Manhattan statue of an unnamed woman is more famous: “Fearless Girl,” which was installed facing Wall Street’s iconic “Charging Bull” statue in March 2017 and was moved near the New York Stock Exchange in April 2018. Though Fearless Girl’s installation was opposed by Charging Bull artist Arturo Di Modica, among others, who argued that the newcomer twisted Charging Bull’s original intent, Fearless Girl was praised by Mayor Bill De Blasio, who said, “Men who don’t like women taking up space are exactly why we need the Fearless Girl.”

The five city statues depicting named women are all located in Manhattan. Anna Hyatts’ statue of Joan of Arc, the French historical hero, rests in Riverside Park on the Upper West Side, and “represents the symbol of French-American goodwill,” according to the Parks Department. Also in Riverside Park is the Eleanor Roosevelt Monument. The statue, designed by Bruce Kelly and David Varnell and sculpted by Penelope Jencks, honors the former First Lady and activist.

Also in Upper Manhattan is the Harriet Tubman Memorial, installed 19 years ago in Harlem at the intersection of St. Nicholas Avenue and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. The monument to the famed abolitionist was designed by Alison Saar. The design of the statue, as well as the remodeling of the surrounding traffic island, now dubbed Harriet Tubman Triangle, received the 2004 Public Design Commission Award for Excellence in Design.

The last two statues of women are in Midtown. A bust of Golda Meir, the former Israeli prime minister, designed by Beatrice Goldfine, may be found in the aptly named Golda Meir Square on Broadway and 39th Street. And a statue of the novelist Gertrude Stein designed by Jo Davidson sits in Bryant Park, near the main branch of the New York Public Library. The placement is intentional, and is meant to honor Stein’s ““significant literary contributions,” according to the Parks Department.

She Built NYC’s deadline to nominate women to be featured in new statues passed on August 1. With an announcement promised in the fall, New Yorkers are waiting to learn which women will join the select group of those featured in public monuments. The city’s Department of Cultural Affairs has committed $10 million to She Built NYC’s efforts.

In 2020, the first statue in Central Park to depict real women will be installed, honoring suffragists the statue Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Designed by Meredith Bergman, the statue was not part of the She Built NYC campaign; instead, it was funded and announced by The Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Statue Fund, which began its campaign in 2017 using the hashtag #MonumentalWomen to call attention to the lack of statues of women in Central Park.

The She Built NYC and #MonumentalWomen campaigns are the latest to attempt to address historical injustices through the medium of New York’s public statues. Last year, amid national discourse surrounding the issue of Confederate monuments and other depictions of racist or otherwise offensive historical figures, Mayor de Blasio created a commission to consider removing or altering any insensitive statues. Ultimately, most statues were left in place, with those of figures including Christopher Columbus and Theodore Roosevelt getting additional plaques to add historical “detail and nuance,” according to the mayor. Ultimately, only one statue was removed from its place. The statue of J. Marion Sims, a 19th century surgeon who invented techniques for gynecological surgery through experimentation on unanesthetized, non-consenting enslaved black women, was relocated to Green-Wood Cemetery, where Sims is buried.

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