Mother Goose, Alice of Lewis Caroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Juliet of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and plenty of historical men have been honored with monuments in New York’s Central Park—but not a single one of the park’s 29 statue pays tribute to women from history. That will change when the city installs a new monument to women’s suffrage, which was unanimously approved by the Public Design Commission last week. But Zachary Small of Hyperallergic reports that not everyone is celebrating the landmark statue, which critics have accused of whitewashing black women’s role in the suffrage movement.
Spearheaded by the Stanton and Anthony Fund (also known simply as the “Statue Fund”), the statue is set to feature famed suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, another women’s rights pioneer. Plans for the original design depicted Anthony standing next to Stanton, who is seated at a writing desk. Stanton’s pen rests on a large scroll that runs over the base of the monument and onto the ground, inscribed with the names and quotes of 22 other women who made vital contributions to the suffrage movement. Seven of them, including Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells, were black.
When it was unveiled, activists bristled at the design, which they said minimized the contributions of black suffrage leaders. Gloria Steinem, for instance, told the New York Times’ Ginia Bellafante that the design made it look as though Anthony and Stanton “are standing on the names of these other women.”
“I do think we cannot have a statue of two white women representing the vote for all women,” she added.
The divisiveness around the design is pinned to the historic marginalization of black women during the early fight for the right to vote. Historian Martha S. Jones—who has previously detailed the history of black women’s quest for universal suffrage for Smithsonian.com—argued in the Washington Post last week that “Stanton stands for an impoverished vision of equality that never admitted that black Americans, male and female, were her equals.”
“As Stanton’s partner,” wrote Jones. “Anthony was too often complicit with this view.”
When Congress passed the 15th Amendment, granting black men the right to vote, women had not yet been granted suffrage. That sparked resentment among some white women’s rights campaigners. Stanton once opined that black men would be “despotic” if they had the vote, and that it is “better to be the slave of an educated white man than of a degraded black one.” Though a supporter of universal suffrage, Anthony felt that women’s right to vote trumped that of black men. “[I will] cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work for or demand the ballot for the negro and not the woman,” she once said.
“Anthony’s statement, separating women and African Americans into two groups, overlooked the presence of African American women and their desire for the vote,” writes Ama Ansah of the National Women’s History Museum.
What’s more, black women were excluded and marginalized during some of the most important suffragist campaigns. No black women were present at Seneca Falls, New York, for the first women’s rights convention in the United States in 1848; the lone African-American representative was Frederick Douglass, who had connected with Anthony and Stanton over their abolitionist work. In 1913, black activists were forced to walk at the back of a women’s march in Washington that coincided with the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson. In a conversation with the curator of a new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery about women’s suffrage, Jones describes how even after the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, black women continued to face an uphill battle to secure voting rights. “The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the point at which black men and women were put much closer to equal footing when it comes to voting rights in this country,” she said.
Lynn Sherr, a journalist who is now the Statue Fund’s director, pushed back against the criticism leveled against suffrage leaders like Anthony and Stanton. “Their goal was universal suffrage—the right to vote based on citizenship, not race or gender or anything else,” Sherr tells Hyperallergic’s Small. While addressing the Public Design Commission, she opined that “[t]o suggest that twentieth-century bigotry defined the goals and actions of Stanton and Anthony in the 1800s is glib at best, bad history at worst.”
Nevertheless, in response to criticism of the Central Park monument, the artist behind the statue, Meredith Bergmann, made several changes to the design. She took out the long scroll containing the list of suffragists names, for instance, replacing it with a ballot box. Bergmann also removed reference to the broader suffrage movement in an inscription on the statue’s plinth, instead referring to Anthony and Stanton as “women’s rights pioneers.”
During the Public Design Commission meeting, Commissioner Mary Valverde called on the Statue Fund to implement “a more inclusive approach” going forward, according to Small. But the Commission ultimately approved the statue.
The installation of the Central Park monument is part of a broader push to increase the representation of historic women among New York’s statuary. Earlier this month, for instance, the initiative She Built NYC announced that it is bringing statues of pioneering women to each of the city’s five boroughs. Among them are Elizabeth Jennings Graham, Shirley Chisholm and Billie Holiday—three black women who made a defining mark on New York history.
Editor's note, March 26, 2019: This piece has been corrected to note that while black women were not present at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, the call to attend the meetings was open to the public.