The Banality of Evocation

Demonstrators chant during the 2020 Women's March on January 18, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

The Banality of Evocation

How to Remember a Feminist Movement That Hasn’t Ended

On August 26, 2020, Alice in Wonderland will get some company. She will be joined in New York City's Central Park by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth, the first statues there of women who, unlike Alice, actually existed. The monument is a gift to the park from Monumental Women, a non-profit organization formed in 2014. The group has raised the $1.5 million necessary to commission, install, and maintain the new "Women's Rights Pioneers Monument" and so achieve its goal of "breaking the bronze ceiling" in Central Park.

Preparations for its unveiling on the centennial anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted suffrage (that is, the right to vote) to women, are in full swing. Celebratory articles have been written. The ceremony will be live-streamed. Viola Davis, Meryl Streep, Zoe Saldana, Rita Moreno, and America Ferrera have recorded monologues in English and Spanish as Stanton, Anthony, and Truth. The Pioneers Monument, breaking what had been a moratorium, is the first new statue placed in Central Park in decades.

As statues topple across the country, the Pioneers Monument is a test case for the future of public art in America. On the surface, it's exactly what protesters have been demanding: a more diverse set of honorees who better reflect our country's history and experience. But critics fear that the monument actually reinforces the dominant narrative of white feminism and, in the process, obscures both historical pain and continuing injustice.

Ain't I a Woman?

In 2017, Monumental Women asked artists to propose a monument with statues of white suffragists Anthony and Stanton while "honoring the memory" of other voting-rights activists. In 2018, they announced their selection of Meredith Bergmann's design in which Anthony stood beside Stanton who was seated at a writing desk from which unfurled a scroll listing the names of other voting rights activists.

Famed feminist Gloria Steinem soon suggested that the design made it look as if Anthony and Stanton were actually "standing on the names of these other women." Similar critical responses followed and, in early 2019, the group reacted by redesigning the monument. The scroll was gone, but Anthony and Stanton remained.

The response: increasing outrage from critics over what the New York Times' Brent Staples called the monument's "lily-white version of history." The proposed monument, wrote another critic in a similar vein, "manages to recapitulate the marginalization Black women experienced during the suffrage movement," as when white organizers forced Black activists to walk at the back of a 1913 women's march on Washington. Historian Martha Jonesin an op-ed in the Washington Post criticized the way the planned monument promoted the "myth" that the fight for women's rights was led by Anthony's and Stanton's "narrow, often racist vision," and called for adding escaped slave, abolitionist, and women's rights promoter Sojourner Truth.

Although the New York City Public Design Commission had approved the design with just Anthony and Stanton, Monumental Women did indeed rework the monument, adding a portrait of Truth in June 2019. The sculptor would later make additional smaller changes in response to further criticism about her depiction of Truth, including changing the positioning of her hands and body to make her a more active participant in the scene. (In an earlier version, she was seated farther from Stanton's table, her hands resting quietly as if she were merely listening to the white suffragists.)

Their changes didn't satisfy everyone. More than 20 leading scholars of race and women's suffrage, for instance, sent a letter to Monumental Women, asking it to do a better job showing the racial tensions between the activists. Their letter acknowledged that Truth had indeed been a guest in Stanton's home during a May 1867 Equal Rights Association meeting. They noted, however, that this was before white suffragists fully grasped the conflict between the fight for the right of women to vote and the one for the political participation of African Americans, newly freed by the Civil War, in the American democratic system. Stanton and Anthony came to believe that, of the two struggles, (white) women's votes should take precedence, though they ultimately lost when Congress passed the 15th Amendment in 1870, extending the vote to Black men.

The tensions between race and women's rights arose again when, in 1919, Congress finally passed the 19th Amendment, intending to give women the right to vote. Its ratification, however, was delayed largely because Southern states feared the very idea of granting the vote to Black women. During the summer of 1920, realizing that they still needed to convince one more Southern state to ratify the amendment, white suffragists began a campaign to remind white southerners that the Jim Crow laws already on their books to keep Black men from voting would do the same for Black women. Tennessee then voted to ratify.

The white suffragists would prove all too accurate. When southern Black women tried to exercise their new right to vote, they would be foiled by discriminatory literacy tests, poll taxes, or just plain violence. In 1926, for instance, Indiana Little, a teacher in Birmingham, Alabama, led a march of hundreds of African Americans on the city's voter registration office. They were not, however, permitted to register and Little was both beaten and sexually assaulted by a police officer. (Meanwhile, Native American women remained without American citizenship, much less the right to vote, until 1924.)

For Black women, according to Martha Jones, author of the forthcoming book Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All, the 1965 Voting Rights Act would prove to be the "15th and 19th Amendments rolled into one." It would give teeth to what had been merely a promise when it came to granting them the vote. And they would prove a crucial part of the fight to make it a reality. Amelia Boynton Robinson, the first Black woman in Alabama to run for Congress (her campaign motto: "A voteless people is a hopeless people"), even turned her husband's memorial service into Selma's first mass meeting for voting rights. She then became a key organizer of the 1965 march from Selma to the state capital, Montgomery, during which an Alabama state trooper beat her brutally as she tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. A widely published photograph of her lying on the ground, bloody and unconscious, would form part of the campaign that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act a few months later.

Glamour Shots in Bronze

With its gentle portraits of Stanton, Anthony, and Truth, the Women's Rights Pioneers Monument is far from that image of a bloodied protester. In following the model of the very kind of traditional monument it means to replace, it leaves out the pain and the struggle of the women's movement.

It didn't have to be that way. In 2015, one of Monumental Women's leaders told the New York Times that they wanted a memorial that wouldn't be "old-fashioned." Nonetheless, the design they ultimately selected, with its realistic, larger-than-life portrait statues on a pedestal, would prove to be in precisely that traditional style.

The group has claimed that just such a stylistic compromise was necessary because the New York Parks Department refused to allow an "overtly modern" monument in Central Park. (That department disagrees that it should be blamed for the monument's style. Its press officer told me that they "encourage innovative contemporary art" and pointed to a number of examples of modern, abstract monuments that "grace our parks" in Queens, Manhattan, Staten Island, and Brooklyn.) The Pioneers Monument sits on a leafy promenade nicknamed "Literary Walk" because of its statues of authors like William Shakespeare and Robert Burns. It fits in perfectly there, and would go hardly less well with the future "National Garden of American Heroes" President Trump demanded in response to Black Lives Matter protests. In his executive order to make it so, he specified that the statues in his garden must be realistic, "not abstract or modernist."

Monumental Women's style choice conveys important messages. For one, monuments traditionally show the people they honor in the most flattering form imaginable and this one is no exception. Bergmann has sculpted the women as attractively as possible (while being more or less faithful to the historical record). If the monument represents the moment in 1857 when the three women were together, Truth would have been 70 years old and Anthony, the youngest, in her late 40s. Yet all three are shown with unwrinkled faces, smooth hands, and firm necks. Stanton's hair falls in perfect curls. While they may not look exactly young, neither are they aging. Think of the monument as the equivalent of Glamour Shots in bronze.

As historian Lyra Monteiro, known for her critique of the way playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda erased the slave past in his Broadway hit "Hamilton"--even as he filled the roles of the founding fathers with actors of color--pointed out to me, the monument makes the three women into feminists of a type acceptable even to conservative viewers. Besides portraying them as conventionally attractive, the sculpture uses symbols that emphasize the more traditional feminine aspects of their lives: Truth's lap full of knitting; Stanton's delicate, spindly furniture; and Anthony's handbag. Who could doubt that their armpit hair is also under control?

The women's faces are, by the way, remarkably emotionless, which is unsurprising for a monument in the traditional style. Since Greco-Roman antiquity, heroic statuary has famously sported faces of almost preternatural calm. Such expressions, however, only contribute to what Monteiro called the concealment of "the struggle" that marked feminism from its first moments.

Sojourner Truth, for instance, was known for speeches like "Ain't I a Woman?" in which she drew deep and emotional reactions from listeners by describing the sufferings she experienced before escaping from slavery. The triumphalist calm of the Pioneers Monument avoids those emotions and so belongs to a long tradition in American statuary that celebrates revolutionary deeds as, in Monteiro's words, "very old and very, very done." Such monuments ask viewers to offer thanks for victory instead of spurring them on to continue the fight.

Monteiro also points out that the choice of commemorating universal suffrage is telling in itself. No matter how many fierce debates it once inspired, the idea that women should have the right to vote is today uncontroversial. But other women's rights issues remain hotly debated. Imagine statuary celebrating the fight for the right to abortion or to use the bathroom of your choice.

As an example of monuments that energize viewers in an ongoing fight instead of tranquilizing them into thinking victory has been won, Monteiro pointed to Mexico City's antimonumentos (anti-monuments), large if unofficial displays aimed at calling out government negligence. A typical one, made of metal and portraying the international symbol for women with a raised fist at its center, installed during a 2019 protest march in one of that city's main squares, bears an inscription indicating that protestors were not going to shut up when it came to the gender-based violence that then continues unchecked in their country. City officials have let such antimonumentos remain in place, undoubtedly fearing negative publicity from their removal. So they continue to act as reminders that the government's actions are both questionable and being scrutinized.

The triumphalism of the Pioneers Monument suggests that the problem of women's rights is oh-so-settled. But of course, in the age of Donald Trump in particular, the kinds of oppressions that Truth, Stanton, and Anthony fought couldn't be more current. Many feminists of color feel that white feminists still tend to ignore racial issues and seldom have the urge to share leadership in activism.

And today, despite Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's recent choice of Kamala Harris as his running mate, the voting rights of women of color remain imperiled. Since a 2013 Supreme Court decision struck downone of the Voting Rights Act's key protections, minority voters have found it ever more difficult to exercise their theoretical right to vote amid growing efforts by Republican officials to suppress minority (and so Democratic) votes more generally. The fight for women's votes is hardly over, no matter what the Pioneers Monument might have to say about it.

Todd Fine, a preservation activist, told me that he wishes Monumental Women had focused their discussions on what a truly diverse community might have wanted for such a commemoration rather than responding to bursts of criticism with modest tweaks of their proposed statue.

One explanation for the group's resistance to change is that it is led by exactly the type of well-off, educated, white women whose right to vote hasn't been in question since 1920. In the same period that they were reacting to criticism of their proposed monument's exclusion of women of color, I found that Monumental Women's tax filings reveal that they added three women of color to their board of directors. Diversification of leadership is certainly a positive step, but the organization's president and other officers remain the same. And at least two of the new directors had already raised funds for the planned Stanton and Anthony monument, writing and speaking positively about the organization and its goals, and so could be expected to be at best modest critics of its path.

Historic Lies and Scented Candles

One reaction to the debate around the Pioneers Monument is to think that Monumental Women simply didn't make the best decision about whom to honor or how to do it. But historian Sally Roesch Wagner has no doubt that searching for the right honoree is itself not the right way to go. She told me that, when it comes to the feminist movement, monuments to individuals are "a standing historic lie" because women's rights have been won "by a steady history of millions of women and men... working together at the best of times, separately at the worst." Wagner believes that to honor individuals for such achievements today is to disempower the movement itself.

Early feminists horrified the public. The Pioneers Monument is designed to soothe. It invites you to light a scented candle rather than to burn your bra. Bronze is long-lasting, but perhaps it's no longer the best material for monuments. In a moment when a previously almost unimaginable American president is defending traditional Confederate monuments in a big way, perhaps something else is needed.

The playwright Ming Peiffer will premier "Finish the Fight," an online theatrical work, as August ends. She aims to let us listen to some of the Black, Asian, Latinx, and Native American activists whose roles in the fight for the vote have been forgotten. Perhaps in 2020, the best monuments to the fight for women's rights--for all our rights--may look nothing like what most of us would imagine.

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