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It’s Way Too Hard to Find Statues of Notable Women in the U.S.

Only a handful of the country’s sculptures honor women

The Eleanor Roosevelt Monument in Riverside Park, New York, was dedicated at 72nd Street on October 5, 1996. (William Manning/CORBIS)
smithsonian.com

When you walk the streets of cities like New York and Washington, D.C., it’s hard to miss the sculptures that mark the parks and neighborhoods. Historic figures often can be seen standing erect or sitting astride on their horses, stoically striking a poise. More often than not, these statues have another thing in common: their gender. The majority of public statues in the United States are of men.

Of the estimated 5,193 public statues depicting historic figures on display on street corners and parks throughout the United States, only 394 of these monuments are of women, the Washington Post’s Cari Shane wrote in 2011. Compounding this number, none of the 44 memorials maintained by the National Parks Service, like the Lincoln Memorial or the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, specifically focus on women.

A group called Where Are The Women? is looking to change this ratio. Recently, it successfully campaigned to have statues of women’s rights pioneers Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton installed in Central Park (which, notoriously, had no statues of non-fictional women on its grounds) and is now raising funds to build the suffragettes.

The lack of women's representation is problematic because leaving their narratives out from public art takes away from the significant roles that women have played in history. As Shane writes:

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.

Currently, few of the statues that do show women on city streets around the country are modeled on historic figues, Kriston Capps writes for CityLab. Instead, women often appear as archetypes, symbols of abstract concepts or as nameless figures in a memorial.

While one campaign isn't enough to solve persistent issues of gender discrimination and inequality in the U.S., by pressing to honor real women from history, cities around the country can restore them to a story that has ignored them for so long. After all, as it stands now, there remains only five public statues of historic women in New York City: Joan of Arc, Golda Meir, Gertrude Stein, Eleanor Roosevelt and Harriet Tubman. 

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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