By Julia Stern ’22
In Central Park’s Literary Walk, passersby can stop in front of a newly unveiled monument and eagerly take photos of their daughters next to the fourteen-foot depiction of three historic women: Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
On August 26 this year, Central Park unveiled its first new monument since 1965: Women’s Rights Pioneers. The monument’s arrival marks the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment’s ratification and is the first monument in Central Park to honor historical women (as opposed to depictions of nymphs, angels, witches, Alice in Wonderland and Mother Goose).
According to the New York Times, only five of the 150 statues of historical figures in New York City depict women. Women’s Rights Pioneers was funded by Monumental Women, a nonprofit organization created to donate art to New York City, with the goal of “breaking the bronze ceiling” and providing more representation for women.
The monument was designed by Meredith Bergmann and includes iconographic details such as sunflowers on Stanton’s dress to represent her pseudonym and a striped jacket on Truth that is decorated with laurel wreaths to symbolize victory and honor.
Sojourner Truth, a famous abolitionist and women’s rights activist, was born enslaved in Ulster County, New York, in 1797. Truth joined the abolitionist movement after escaping from slavery at age 30 and lived in and around New York City until 1843. Truth attended the first national women’s rights conference in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1850 (from which Stanton and Anthony were absent). One year later, Truth delivered one of the most famous speeches in American history, “Ain’t I A Woman?” at a Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio.
Stanton and Anthony were suffragists from New York who organized and attended conventions, rallies, marches, and meetings. The two founded the Women’s Loyal National League in 1863 and collected more than 400,000 petition signatures to urge President Abraham Lincoln to end slavery through the 13th Amendment. Monumentalwomen.org said both women enjoyed spending time in Central Park.
Of the three New York women memorialized, only Sojourner Truth truly advocated for enfranchisement for all.
Despite formerly being involved in abolitionist causes, Anthony and Stanton upheld racist and classist notions in their fight for suffrage. After the Civil War, Black women were fighting for the vote for both themselves and Black men in a time of racist violence and terror, reported Brent Staples in a 2018 New York Times article. When the word “male” was added to the 14th and 15th Amendments, Sojourner Truth at first supported Stanton and Anthony in their campaign against the Amendments, as they demanded that the Amendments enfranchise all women in addition to African American men.
But later, when the 15th Amendment passed, Stanton warned that white women would be degraded if Black men received the vote first. Ben Staples quoted historian Faye Dudden in the New York Times, writing that Stanton “dipped her pen into a tincture of white racism and sketched a reference to a nightmarish figure, the black rapist” in her and Anthony’s New York City newspaper The Revolution. Staples said that Stanton’s writing “must have cheered the Ku Klux Klan as it terrorized the Black South.”
The movement to “break the bronze ceiling” emerged out of a desire for groundbreaking inclusivity, yet the choice to depict Stanton and Anthony means honoring the suffragists who fought for their rights while maintaining white supremacy.
The original design of the sculpture depicted only Anthony and Stanton, with a scroll between them that named and quoted 22 other women who contributed to the movement. Sojourner Truth was one of these women on the scroll, her incredible impact on the movement reduced to a single quotation.
According to a blog on the Central Park website, the Parks Department had rejected a more conceptual design to honor the diversity of the suffrage movement, and the desire for a traditional bronze monument made an accurate depiction of the women’s rights movement difficult. Ginia Bellafante in a New York Times article wrote that the white feminists behind the Statue Fund, while touting their commitment to inclusion, maintained that the proposed sculpture was suitable even though it “could not meet all the desires of the people who have waited so long for recognition.”
In March 2019, the model for the final monument still depicted only Anthony and Stanton, with no acknowledgment of Sojourner Truth’s significant role in the women’s movement. Martha S. Jones, in a piece for the Washington Post, wrote that “One lesson of the debate over Confederate monuments is how the erection of statues can be an exercise in mythmaking [...] and white supremacy.” In response to critics and pushback from some of the commissioners, the scroll was first taken out, and then the sculpture was redesigned altogether to include Sojourner Truth.
The Instagram account @changethemuseum, which aims to “pressur[e] US Museums to move beyond lip service proclamations” and “amplify tales of unchecked racism,” posted an account of the monument’s creation and the attempts to alter its design. According to the post, only three out of eleven commissioners refused to vote for the sculpture, despite pushback from the anonymous commissioner who urged that “Approval of this permanent monument would create a false historical narrative that would perpetuate this lie for years to whole communities and tourists.”
The Nineteenth Amendment itself excluded Black women and Native American women, who only gained suffrage after the 1965 Voting Rights Act, as well as Asian American women, who gained the right to vote following the McCarran Walter Act of 1952. Marcia Chatelain, a professor of history and African-American Studies at Georgetown University, told NPR, “No one should celebrate anything as long as we live in a country that has such strategically created voter suppression. We really can't claim that the United States had an incredible victory in 1920, when in 2020 there are still far too many barriers for people to vote.”