Why We Need Better Representation of Women in Central Park

After 165 years, women finally get a statue in Central Park. Is it enough?

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The Central Park Conservancy unveiled its first statue commemorating real women three years ago. Since its construction in 1858, the only representations of women in Central Park have been fictitious characters such as Alice in Wonderland. Thus, August 25, 2020, should have been a celebrated date that marked a new chapter not only in the representation of women in our parks but also in the movement towards a greater appreciation of the achievements and contributions of women. But don’t be deceived. The statue the Central Park Conservancy put up on that day was no great show of our progress, but rather a sad example of messy, insincere attempts at representation.

The statue features three key figures of the women’s suffrage movement: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, and Susan B. Anthony. It shows Truth and Stanton sitting while Anthony stands above them in a fictitious scene that supposedly demonstrates “three women as activists at work.” However, it is hard to determine if the women are talking about politics or simply making a grocery list. The body language of the statue fails to convey the power and importance of its subjects. Their chins and eyes point downward, and their postures are upright but relaxed. Look around at the other statues in Central Park, and you will notice that none of them show men in this manner. Some men are shown with their shoulders back and eyes upward, and others, often in war memorials, depict struggle and comradery. These statues adhere to our social beliefs about body language, namely that upward posture and firm eyes reveal confidence. While the creators of the suffragists’ statue may have believed that they were showing the importance of a traditionally feminine environment by placing the women in a domestic setting, they were actually ignoring the visual language of composure, power, and assertiveness. Their postures in the statue imply passivity and inactivity, and the domesticity of the scene in no way represents these women whose legacies were established outside of the home: marching, speaking, and protesting. Ultimately, the job of the creators of a memorial is not to impose their own ideas of what is good (like the value of domesticity) but to accurately depict and immortalize an individual and their contributions. Too few of us know who these women were and what their legacy is, so this statue should have been an important way to teach the public about the key figures of the women’s rights movement.

So, who were these three incredible women, and what is their legacy? Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a women’s rights activist and abolitionist. Born in New York in 1815, Stanton was educated at the Troy Female Seminary. Though she wanted to pursue a college degree and study law, this was nearly impossible for women at the time. She instead received an informal law education through her father, a member of the House of Representatives. In 1851, Stanton started working with Susan B. Anthony, who became both her friend and partner in almost all of her work. Anthony had become interested in activism for the rights of women and abolition at a young age due in part to the influence of her Quaker roots, which had taught her that all people are equal under God. Together, Anthony and Stanton created the Women’s Loyal National League to fight for abolition and The Revolution, a newspaper dedicated to the fight for women’s rights. They were also part of creating the American Equal Rights Association. The two wrote and delivered hundreds of speeches on topics ranging from parenting to property laws

Sojourner Truth, on the other hand, had vastly different origins. Born into slavery in New York, Truth was sold three times by the time she was 13 years old. When Truth finally escaped slavery, she was a wife and a mother of five children. As four of her children were legally bound to her “master,” she could only escape with her infant daughter. When anti-slavery laws were finally passed in New York in 1827, Sojourner Truth became the first Black person to sue a white person in the United States when she took her former master to court for illegally selling her son. Truth not only won the case, but she also gained custody of her five-year-old son, Peter. Prior to the Civil War, Truth delivered numerous speeches across the country. Her experience as a Black woman, a formerly enslaved person, and a devout Christian became the foundation of her abolitionist and pro-female liberation arguments. However, the Civil War’s onset made her speeches increasingly political in nature, and she used her growing platform to push for the inclusion of Black men in the Union army.

The question remains: did these three women ever meet? Yes, they certainly did, and on many occasions. But, despite what the Central Park statue may lead one to believe, Truth profoundly disagreed with Stanton and Anthony on one important issue: the enfranchisement of Black men. Simply put, Stanton and Anthony believed that only universal suffrage should be accepted and, without it, the 15th Amendment should not pass. Truth certainly believed in women’s suffrage but also thought the 15th Amendment would be important progress. This, however, is a gross oversimplification of a complex issue that would divide the women’s movement for two decades. 

Putting these three suffragists together in one statue ignores their individual and complex backgrounds, particularly that of Sojourner Truth, a woman who escaped enslavement. It absurdly suggests that the suffragists had a great meeting in which they presumably all agreed and banded together to fight misogyny. The truth is more difficult but worthwhile. Pretending that there was unity in the women’s movement that did not exist not only erases history but also hinders our ability to look to the past for guidance as we continue to face differences in our fight for equality.

In a country that was founded on the belief of universal basic human rights, the denial of suffrage to women was the denial of equal humanity. Painfully, not one of these three great heroes lived to see the day women could vote. Without a doubt, those who fought for our suffrage must be celebrated. But how to celebrate them is still uncharted territory. ABC7 reported that fewer than eight percent of public statues in the United States honor women in 2021. Perhaps we don’t know how to represent women and their strength and individuality. If any credit is to be given to the monument in Central Park, it is that it made people like me realize that the park had no statues of real women. I, like many others, had never thought about it but unconsciously walked through the parade of male heroes, internalizing a male-oriented perception of our world and history. While we should not tear down the Central Park suffragists’ monument, we need to continue to think critically about good and bad representation, push for more representation, and, most importantly, learn the history of those who have helped us gain our rights. It is the least we can do for women who fought a fight that was unpopular and unappreciated. These three women didn’t receive statues in their lifetimes. Perhaps this is their legacy: fighting without glory or recognition, fighting when those who support you are few, fighting just because you know it is right.