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The Banality of Evocation: How to Remember a Feminist Movement That Hasn’t Ended

Roundup
tags: memorials, statues, public history



Erin L. Thompson is a TomDispatch regular and a professor of art crime at John Jay College (CUNY). An expert on the deliberate destruction of art, she is the author of the forthcoming Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments (Norton, 2021). Follow her on Twitter @artcrimeprof.

On August 26, 2020, Alice in Wonderland will get some company. She will be joined in New York City’s Central Park by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth, the first statues there of women who, unlike Alice, actually existed. The monument is a gift to the park from Monumental Women, a non-profit organization formed in 2014. The group has raised the $1.5 million necessary to commission, install, and maintain the new “Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument” and so achieve its goal of “breaking the bronze ceiling” in Central Park.

Preparations for its unveiling on the centennial anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted suffrage (that is, the right to vote) to women, are in full swing. Celebratory articles have been written. The ceremony will be live-streamed. Viola Davis, Meryl Streep, Zoe Saldana, Rita Moreno, and America Ferrera have recorded monologues in English and Spanish as Stanton, Anthony, and Truth. The Pioneers Monument, breaking what had been a moratorium, is the first new statue placed in Central Park in decades.

As statues topple across the country, the Pioneers Monument is a test case for the future of public art in America. On the surface, it’s exactly what protesters have been demanding: a more diverse set of honorees who better reflect our country’s history and experience. But critics fear that the monument actually reinforces the dominant narrative of white feminism and, in the process, obscures both historical pain and continuing injustice.

Ain’t I a Woman?

In 2017, Monumental Women asked artists to propose a monument with statues of white suffragists Anthony and Stanton while “honoring the memory” of other voting-rights activists. In 2018, they announced their selection of Meredith Bergmann’s design in which Anthony stood beside Stanton who was seated at a writing desk from which unfurled a scroll listing the names of other voting rights activists.

Famed feminist Gloria Steinem soon suggested that the design made it look as if Anthony and Stanton were actually “standing on the names of these other women.” Similar critical responses followed and, in early 2019, the group reacted by redesigning the monument. The scroll was gone, but Anthony and Stanton remained.

The response: increasing outrage from critics over what the New York Times’ Brent Staples called the monument’s “lily-white version of history.” The proposed monument, wrote another critic in a similar vein, “manages to recapitulate the marginalization Black women experienced during the suffrage movement,” as when white organizers forced Black activists to walk at the back of a 1913 women’s march on Washington. Historian Martha Jones in an op-ed in the Washington Post criticized the way the planned monument promoted the “myth” that the fight for women’s rights was led by Anthony’s and Stanton’s “narrow, often racist vision,” and called for adding escaped slave, abolitionist, and women’s rights promoter Sojourner Truth.

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Monumental Women’s style choice conveys important messages. For one, monuments traditionally show the people they honor in the most flattering form imaginable and this one is no exception. Bergmann has sculpted the women as attractively as possible (while being more or less faithful to the historical record). If the monument represents the moment in 1857 when the three women were together, Truth would have been 70 years old and Anthony, the youngest, in her late 40s. Yet all three are shown with unwrinkled faces, smooth hands, and firm necks. Stanton’s hair falls in perfect curls. While they may not look exactly young, neither are they aging. Think of the monument as the equivalent of Glamour Shots in bronze.

As historian Lyra Monteiro, known for her critique of the way playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda erased the slave past in his Broadway hit “Hamilton” -- even as he filled the roles of the founding fathers with actors of color -- pointed out to me, the monument makes the three women into feminists of a type acceptable even to conservative viewers. Besides portraying them as conventionally attractive, the sculpture uses symbols that emphasize the more traditional feminine aspects of their lives: Truth’s lap full of knitting; Stanton’s delicate, spindly furniture; and Anthony’s handbag. Who could doubt that their armpit hair is also under control?

The women’s faces are, by the way, remarkably emotionless, which is unsurprising for a monument in the traditional style. Since Greco-Roman antiquity, heroic statuary has famously sported faces of almost preternatural calm. Such expressions, however, only contribute to what Monteiro called the concealment of “the struggle” that marked feminism from its first moments.

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