U.S. monuments honor mermaids, but few real women heroes
Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios
It's easier in the United States to find a sculpture of a mermaid than of any American-born woman who actually is part of this world.
- That's according to Monument Lab, a nonprofit that in 2021 counted who and what Americans honor in their public art — 22 sculptures of mermaids, to 21 honoring abolitionist Harriet Tubman.
Driving the news: For Women's History Month, we looked into whether increased awareness of the lack of diversity in American monuments and sculptures has created actual change.
- The answer: Not really. Despite some new statues of women, bridging the gap between the number of memorialized white men and any other American demographic would be expensive and take time.
Why it matters: Monuments have historically represented our values by putting concepts and people on literal pedestals, then enshrining them with protective status and decades-long upkeep.
- But public art in the U.S. has long presented a lopsided view that can leave the impression that American history is all horses and white male military veterans.
What they're saying: "When we don't see people on pedestals that look like us or tell our stories, that tells us that we don't belong within veneration, we don't belong within honor, and often that we don't belong within that space," says Sue Mobley, a senior research scholar at Monument Lab, who co-authored the 2021 audit.
By the numbers: No comprehensive, up-to-date ledger of American public art installations exists, but researchers agree that women and people of color are deeply underrepresented.
- Of the top 50 historical figures represented in Monument Lab data, only three are women, and only five are Black or Indigenous. Half are people who enslaved others.
- Only one woman is featured in more sculptures than Tubman, according to the Monument Lab audit: Joan of Arc, the patron saint of France who became popular here when her image became a symbol of the Allies in World War I. She died more than three centuries before the founding of the United States.
- Only 6% of American monuments feature real women as their subjects, according to research by Sierra Rooney, assistant professor of art history at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
- Only 32% of monuments to women are figurative. "The rest are super abstract, so … it looks like a fountain or a bird bath," Mobley says.
Zoom out: When women are represented in monuments and statues, they are often allegorical or fictional characters, such as the depiction of Little Nell alongside Charles Dickens in Philadelphia or the statue of Dorothy from "The Wizard of Oz" in Chicago.
Flashback: New York's Central Park hosted only statues of men and fictional female characters until 2020 — 100 years after white women gained the right to vote — when a bronze monument was installed depicting suffragist pioneers Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
- The statue spurred national media coverage and calls for an even playing field in municipal art.
- "The fact that nobody, for a long time, even noticed that women were missing in Central Park — what does that say about the invisibility of women?" Pam Elam, president of Monumental Women, which campaigned for the sculpture, told the New York Times.
The big picture: This discrepancy plays out across the country. On the National Mall, only two real women are memorialized alongside more than 40 other figures, including historical men and allegorical interpretations of freedom and justice.
- New Orleans is home to one of the first American sculptures of a woman, unveiled in 1884 and honoring philanthropist Margaret Haughery.
- Yet it took 54 years for the same city to commemorate Ruby Bridges' Civil Rights Era-attendance at William Frantz Elementary School. Compare that to the 17 years it took to install a statue of Ignatius J. Reilly, the haphazard fictional character of John Kennedy Toole's southern classic "A Confederacy of Dunces."
Between the lines: Nothing is permanent. In 2020, nearly 100 Confederate monuments were removed as the nation grappled with police violence against Black people, and public officials are starting to back projects to improve representation.
- San Francisco passed an ordinance in 2018 requiring at least 30% of new public art projects to depict real women.
- In 2022, the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol, which hosts two statues from each state, received a donation from Florida of a statue representing Mary McLeod Bethune, the first Black person to be represented in the hall, and Kansas sent a sculpture of Amelia Earhart, the collection's 11th woman.
- A $10 million campaign in New York will memorialize seven women.
- For International Women's Day this year, Atlanta unveiled a statue of civil rights leader Xernona Clayton.
The bottom line: "Monument-building is a slow process, and it will be decades — if ever — before gender parity exists in public art," Rooney tells Axios.
- Creative, multifigure monuments could also be part of the solution. "All the big things require more than one person," Mobley says. "Just putting up a bronze woman across from the bronze man on a horse doesn't do as much as we need it to do."
Go deeper with Monument Lab's interactive map of locations and depicted gender and ethnicities.
- Make sure your local monuments are represented on OpenStreetMap.org, which Mobley calls the fastest way to ensure researchers know they exist.
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