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.”
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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.”