Why the dearth of statues honoring women in Statuary Hall and elsewhere?

April 15, 2011

When the 2011 Maryland General Assembly session ended Monday, left unfinished was the effort of some residents to honor a famed abolitionist in a space held by a long-forgotten Revolutionary War figure. The failure of the campaign to replace a sculpture of John Hanson in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall with one of Harriet Tubman especially irked some women’s advocates. “I am pretty disgusted,” says Linda Mahoney, president of the Maryland Chapter of the National Organization for Women. “Women continue to be put in the margins or in the footnotes. Yet there is just so much documentation about what Harriet Tubman did. This is separate and unequal treatment.”

But even those advocating for Tubman might not have realized how rare it is to establish a statue commemorating a female figure. Of the 5,193 public outdoor sculptures of individuals in the United States, only 394, or less than 8 percent, are of women, compared with 4,799 of men, according to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Art Inventories Catalog, considered the most up-to-date catalogue of such works. And none of the 44 national memorials managed by the National Park Service (such as the Lincoln Memorial) specifically focuses on women and their accomplishments, writes art historian Erika Doss in her book “Memorial Mania.”

The lack of female monuments and statuary “sends a very clear nonverbal message . . . about the relative stature of boys and girls and men and women. It expands the broader message that the contributions of women don’t matter,” says Lynette Long, a Washington area psychologist and founder of EVE (Equal Visibility Everywhere), a year-old nonprofit group that advocates for gender parity among the nation’s signs, symbols, monuments, currencies and even parade balloons.

Long says the nonverbal signal sent by the dominance of male statuary trumps any verbal communication girls receive about being equal to boys. “Humans tend to trust the nonverbal, and the statues send a very clear nonverbal message. Girls can’t be what they can’t see,” she says.

First was in 1884

The first U.S. statue of a celebrated woman was not erected until 1884 in New Orleans, according to the Smithsonian records; it depicts Margaret Haughery, who devoted her life to the care and feeding of the poor. The fact that commemoration of women has not kept pace with that of men is not surprising, art historians say, given our history and the reasons Americans tend to build memorials.

Americans “worry about saying thank you to our heroes,” says Erika Doss, a professor of American studies at Notre Dame University. “We want to pay due respect, and we want to preserve the memory because we worry about forgetting. We want to have closure.”

And, historically speaking, our heroes are political and military figures who fought in wars. “We have a male-centered history, so we have more male statues,” Doss says.

Art historian Ellen Wiley Todd of George Mason University agrees. Between 1860 and 1959, an era that saw a large uptick in commemorative memorials, “people were putting up statues and memorials . . . to events and people who were considered to be history makers, and those were men.”

During this time, statues of 170 women were erected, although art historians point out that this celebration is largely generic, similar to the Greek- and Roman-era statues that honor the female form with anonymous figures. Allegorical or mythical female statues of that era abound in Washington, including “Freedom” atop the Capitol dome (1863), “North America” and “South America” at the Organization of American States building (1910) and a nymph in the Joseph Darlington fountain (City University of New York) at Fifth and D streets NW (1923).

Replacement allowed

As women’s numbers increased in potentially history-making arenas such as politics and the military, however, their marble and bronze representations did not reflect that change. Between 1960 and today, the Smithsonian records show, 184 public statues of individual women were installed in the United States, and 1,440 male statues were erected during the same period.

Michele H. Bogart, an American visual culture studies professor at Stony Brook University, calls the number “surprising.” But, she adds, “by looking at what was produced each decade, we can see a moment where there was a change, where there were more women in statuary.” After 1991, she says, there was a jump in the installation of statues representing women, such as a 1996 New York City monument to Eleanor Roosevelt and a 2003 memorial in Boston honoring Abigail Adams, Lucy Stone and Phillis Wheatley.

Another monument to women established during that period was the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington, dedicated in 1993 after a nine-year effort to bring it to fruition. But it didn’t happen easily, according to its founder.

“It was incredible how hard we had to work not only to get a sculpture, but one that looked like women,” says Diane Evans, who had been an Army first lieutenant and head nurse in Vietnam and spearheaded the initiative. “We were told by J. Carter Brown, the head of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., that a woman’s statue would upset the delicate balance of tension at the Vietnam Memorial.”

Change has also been slow to come to the Capitol’s National Statuary Hall, which some historians consider a microcosm of the U.S. statuary landscape. Designated by Congress in 1864, it showcases statues of two distinguished individuals from each state, chosen by the legislatures. Before 2000, only six of the 100 statues were female.

In 2000, Congress voted to allow states to replace one or both of their statues. According to Alan Hantman, who was the architect of the Capitol from 1997 to 2007, the law was spurred by “a change in the philosophies of individual states” wanting to remove statues of “forgotten legislators and battle heroes.”

Although not aimed at women, the new law opens the door for more women in Statuary Hall, he says. “Personally, it’s long overdue. There are very powerful people who have impacted the history of our nation, the history of states, who have been women. They haven’t gotten the recognition before, and I am personally pleased that each individual state is reevaluating who represents them in the Statuary Hall collection.”

Only one of 11 states that has replaced a statue, Alabama, has voted to replace a renowned man with a renowned woman. (Alabama removed a statue of Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry, a member of Congress in the mid-1800s and advocate for universal free education, and installed one of Helen Keller in 2009.) Two other states have installed female statues since 2000, although neither statue replaced an existing statue. In 2003, North Dakota installed Sacagawea, and, two years later, Nevada erected a statue of Sarah Winnemucca. In Kansas, a campaign to replace Sen. John James Ingalls with Amelia Earhart has stalled.

Iowa may be an exception to the trend. Last month, the legislature’s vote to replace the statue of Sen. James Harlan with one of agronomist Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Prize winner for advances in fighting famine, was met immediately with the suggestion to replace Iowa’s other figure, Gov. Samuel Jordan Kirkwood, with a woman. “Our male colleagues are saying yeah, you are right,” says Democratic state Rep. Mary Mascher. “They have daughters and mothers and wives and sisters, and they certainly are cognizant and aware of the fact that we don’t have a woman statue there and it is something that has been long overdue.”

Maryland Del. Susan C. Lee (D-Montgomery), who was one of the leaders of the effort to honor Tubman, knew there was a big disparity in the number of male and female statues when she took on the cause. But she says she believes Tubman’s importance transcends issues of gender. Tubman, Lee says, was “an American hero. She’s almost an overqualified individual to be in Statuary Hall.”

Behind the trends

Why the difficulty commemorating women in this day and age? Part of the problem is the lack of visibility itself, says Harriet Senie, director of museum studies and professor of art history at City College of New York: “We are not used to seeing physical female figures commemorated in public memorials. I think until it becomes as familiar to honor women as it is to honor men, the numbers will continue” to skew male.

“Public monuments tend to be conservative and to lag behind social trends,” says Kirk Savage, an art history professor at the University of Pittsburgh and author of “Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape.”

Because public monuments are the domain of the heroic, a traditionally male sphere, Savage adds, it has taken decades for artists to figure out “how to represent female achievement in this traditionally male art form. That’s why statuary females are put in traditionally male poses or created in traditional female roles such as the nurses in the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, nurturing, caring for the wounded.”

“Sculpture is a medium of tradition based on heroic events,” George Mason’s Todd agrees. “Who are our heroes? Firefighters, police officers, soldiers — people on the front lines who are conceived of as male. They may not all be men, but it is a masculine conception.”

And it is getting harder to recognize anyone at all, male or female. Since 2001, only 50 public statues, male and female, have been installed in the United States. “The very mechanism for approval has gotten more complicated because cities are monumented out,” Bogart says.

Finally, for whatever reason, women may not have been their own best advocates for public recognition. “Obviously, women have done plenty in American society, including commissioning memorials to the guys,” Doss says. But “when it comes to their own histories or their own monuments, not so much. Are women just . . . being deferential to a male-dominated history? It seems that women have a lot more work to be doing in order to raise public consciousness about women in the course of American history.”

Some experts suggest that instead of focusing on erecting celebratory statues of themselves, women chose to focus on effecting legislative change. “They were drawn away by causes, living memories, breast cancer research, fundraising efforts. The non-physical memorial may have become the more important subject women are focusing on,” says Todd, whose most recent research has focused on the New York Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which erupted in 100 years ago last month. According to Todd, union members and activists (mostly women) decided not to build an actual memorial to the 146 mostly female garment workers who died, but to keep their memory alive by fighting to improve working conditions.

Alexander Sanger, grandson of Margaret Sanger, who founded the birth control movement more than 80 years ago, agrees with this “diversion theory,” suggesting it is the prime reason that an effort to erect a Sanger statue died out.

“We are asking our donors for so much right now [to help fund important programs], and they are responding. Perhaps women’s statues will be like women doctors or lawyers: It takes 30 years after they get admitted to law or medical school for the employment numbers to even out. So perhaps it will take a generation or two after the Second Wave of Feminism for the statues to even out.”

Lee, for one, is not being diverted. “I am not worn down by this, I am fired up. I know now what we need to do, and I am committed to bringing the bill next year,” she says. “We are going to go back and regroup, and we are going to produce a really good bill so we can have Harriet Tubman in Statuary Hall.”

Shane is a freelance writer.

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