Go ask Alice: Public spaces need real women

Alice in Wonderland and I go back a long way. In my childhood I read and reread the books in which she starred. My entire 9th-grade class, unbidden by any teacher, memorized Jabberwocky. To this day, I can still recite it, as well as convulse my cousins with a dramatic recitation of The Lobster Quadrille.

I tell you all this to assure you that I am perfectly happy to have a statue in New York City’s Central Park of Alice and her buddies.

But, although she has delighted generations, Alice is, after all, a figment of the imagination — as are Mother Goose, Juliet (of Romeo and), and the assorted nymphs, angels and allegorical figures who are the only females represented among the statuary in the nation’s most-visited urban park.

Assorted men, and a dog

While not one breathing female person has been deemed worthy in the park’s 160-year history of having a statue erected to her, nearly two dozen assorted men have been so honored. The 14th– century Polish king, Wlasyslaw II Jagiello, greets the parks’ 40 million annual visitors, as does the 19th-century Danish sculptor Albert Thorvaldsen. Italian politician Giuseppe Mazzini and Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt are there. So are Hans Christian Andersen, Ludwig van Beethoven, Simón Bolívar, Alexander Hamilton, William Shakespeare, Daniel Webster, and a dozen other undoubtedly commendable gentlemen. There is even a statue of Balto, the lead sled dog on the final leg of a 1925 journey to deliver diphtheria antitoxin from Anchorage, Alaska to Nome.

Give the historical restrictions on women’s participation in public life, one might expect somewhat fewer public representations of women’s accomplishments than of men’s. But there are scarcely any such images. According to the Smithsonian, over 90 percent of U.S. outdoor sculptures of historical individuals depict men. None of our national holidays celebrate women or milestones in the struggle for women’s equality. Congress took 75 years to bring up the “Portrait Monument” of Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton from the depths of the U.S. Capitol basement into the Rotunda, where visitors could actually see it.

Even as more women have entered public life, the balance has scarcely shifted. Establishing the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington, dedicated in 1993 to the eleven thousand nurses and other women who served in that war, required a decade-long struggle. Smithsonian records show that, since 1960, women have been portrayed on just 12 percent of new public statues of individuals.

Sculpture by Adelaide Johnson.

The right sort of pedestals

However, communities around the country are beginning to rethink the public representation of their own and the nation’s past.

As we approach the centennial in 2020 of the passage of the 19th amendment, a New York City organization called the Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Statue Fund (www.centralparkwherearethewomen.org) has obtained permission to move forward with plans to honor a group of women who had an indelible impact on American history. After complex negotiations with various agencies, they received approval from the city’s Department of Parks to erect a statue that will portray Stanton and Anthony, and include representations of others whose work was crucial to the eventual success of the 80-year struggle for women’s right to vote. The statue will be erected near Central Park’s West 77th Street entrance — not far from statues of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

Stanton (1815-1902) spearheaded the 1848 Seneca Falls women’s rights convention that marked the beginning of a recognizable U.S. women’s rights movement, wrote the groundbreaking Declaration of Sentiments detailing the wrongs and indignities suffered by women, and later presided over the National Women’s Suffrage Association. Describing herself in an 1852 letter to Anthony as on the verge of “a woman’s rights convulsion,” she published throughout her long life essays and speeches that read as starkly contemporary over a century after her death.

Anthony (1820-1906), the resolute and indefatigable organizer, traveled in all kinds of weather to bring the message of women’s rights to the largest cities and the most isolated farms. She counted among her accomplishments getting herself arrested in 1872 for voting in Rochester, New York, in a case that made national headlines. Not allowed to testify on her own behalf, and convicted for “the crime of voting” by the all-male jury, she declared, “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”

The women who committed their lives to obtaining voting rights for half the U.S. population have to be as important as a beloved Danish author or a Polish warrior king. When I visit the new statue, I’ll certainly stop to say hello to my old friend Alice — and I’ll be glad to see that tomorrow’s girls visiting the park will have some real women to look up to.

© Rhea Hirshman 2017

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