Lessons on women’s history were sparse at best in my early eduction, but that didn’t stop me. I read voraciously on the subject and later took women’s studies classes throughout college.
Yet recently — while attending a new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York called “Rebel Women” — I was forced to confront how little I knew about some of the women who’d shaped a city where I work every day, a city I love.
On display were biographies, prints and photographs of about 15 of the city’s most rebellious women from the Victorian era: those like Elizabeth Jennings, below left, who in 1854 — more than a century before Rosa Parks — refused to dismount a streetcar because of her race; and Victoria Woodhull, below right, who in 1872 became the first woman ever to run for president.
These women sought what many women today seek: professional status, racial and social equality, and sexual freedom. They were my kind of people! So how was it possible that I hadn’t heard of at least half of them?
“You’re not alone,” Alicia Glen, the deputy mayor of New York, said to me as we walked through the exhibit. “We have to have physical representation,” she explained, to help fill the gap in our collective memory.
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She was talking about statues — of which the world’s greatest women are lacking.
In the United States, there are about 5,200 public statues depicting historical figures, according to The Smithsonian’s Art Inventories Catalog. Very few of those — fewer than 400, according to one account in The Washington Post — are of women.
In Washington, D.C., where you can’t swing a “future is female” tote without hitting a carved effigy, only five public statues depict women.
And in New York, there are about 145 monuments of men but only five that honor real women. (Sorry, Mother Goose and Alice in Wonderland, fictional characters don’t count).
But there is a renewed push to remedy this monumental gender gap (pun intended).
After a multiyear effort, statues of the suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony are now bound for Central Park. A new program called She Built New York plans to commission a public monument dedicated to a lucky New York City woman.
Coming soon to Richmond, Va., is a monument called “Voices from the Garden” that will pay tribute to hundreds of historic women who helped shape Virginia and the United States. And recently, in Salt Lake City, the website Statues.com introduced an effort to create busts of 20 trailblazing American women.
For the last decade, Michelle Duster, the great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells, a pioneer of modern journalism, has led a crowdfunding campaign to bring a monument of her ancestor to fruition in Chicago — which has only one statue of a woman in its parks, installed about a month ago.
That monument of Wells will be erected next year.
Who deserves a monument in your town? Let me know at [email protected].
In the News
• Shirley Chisholm. Lillian Wald. Dorothy Day. Last month, our Metro section asked readers which women should be memorialized in New York. Here are 10 suggestions. [The New York Times]
• His voice deepened. Suddenly, people listened. A few months after Thomas Page McBee, a trans man, began injecting testosterone, he discovered a “startling new privilege.” [The New York Times]
• Daughters do more chores. They also earn less allowance, suggesting that the gender pay gap begins at home, and early in life. [The New York Times]
• Inside Syria’s women’s prison. An inmate got her guards to give her pencils and paper, then began sketching the faces and habits of fellow prisoners. [The New York Times]
• Female big-wave surfers suit up. Men have for years competed in formal events on Mavericks, a California location that sees 50-foot waves, but women have never been invited … until now. [The California Sunday Magazine]
Overlooked but Not Forgotten
It’s not only stone and bronze from which women have historically been absent — they’ve been missing from print, too. This year, in a series called Overlooked, The Times began writing long-overdue obituaries for the women who never got them. This week we remember Julia Sand, who in a series of letters advised, cajoled and scolded an American president on policy matters. And it appeared as though he listened.
From the Archives
Meet Madame Restell, a Rebel Woman who made a fortune — and was considered a hero to those in need — by providing birth control and abortions to women in New York.
While abortions weren’t exactly illegal when she started, she did eventually face mounting scrutiny and was ultimately vilified and nicknamed “The Wickedest Woman in New York.”
For a 1871 New York Times article titled “The Evil of the Age,” eye witnesses went into her facility and described the ease in which Madame Restell agreed to help — until she was apparently tipped off by her daughter.