Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Lift Us Up Where We Belong? Women and Public Monuments

Putting Women on Pedestals: Are Monuments for Women Needed?


In her 4 September 2017 New York Times op-ed, Julia Baird makes the case for "why we should put women on pedestals."

Of course she begins her column by acknowledging that it is "a perilous time to be a statue," adding, "not that it has every been a particularly secure occupation."

Perilous times indeed. Statues erected to commemorate famous men seem to be coming down quickly these days. In the last few months, Confederate statues have been removed from public display in California, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin, while states in which cities are considering their removal include Alabama, Georgia, and Washington.

(It's also a perilous time to be a piece of stained glass--just one day after Baird's piece was published, the congregation of the Washington National Cathedral voted to remove two windows, installed in 1953, depicting "painful, distracting, and one-sided" stories of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and the removal was begun the very next day.)

With so many statues of men coming down, should monuments to women be going up? 
Queen Victoria,
sculpture by her daughter,
Princess Louise,
Kensington Palac

Is Baird right? Should we be putting women on pedestals? Assuming, of course, that we mean it literally--that is, if we mean raising bronze or stone public monuments in honor of notable women and their achievements.

(I think we can all agree we've had enough of the tired, old fantasies that metaphorically put women on pedestals, idealizing them as romantic objects of desire, to be admired and worshipped. How many really bad boyfriends have complained, after they are dumped, that their treatment is unjust because, after all, they put their girlfriends up on pedestals and idolized them?!!!) 

And more than just agreeing with Baird, should we do all we can to help create more public sculptures of women on pedestals? Baird believes that we should: "if women are on those pedestals," she argues, then we "will know women can matter and make history. Or simply that women are history."

As soon as I saw the title of Baird's essay, I thought immediately of a paper one of my students had written long ago, back in the 1980s. Our seminar had been on Arthurian romance--our reading started with the origins of the Arthurian myth in the "historical" works of Gildas and Nennius, and the Cambrian Annals, but we spent most of our semester with Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur.

Lancelot and Guinevere. Tristan and Isolde. Knights and, of course, "their" ladies, worshipped, desired, served, saved, placed on pedestals. (Or, sometimes, imprisoned in towers--but that's another story . . . )

Although it was years before G.R.R. Martin published the first volume of his Song of Ice and Fire, many of the students who had enrolled in that seminar had come to King Arthur through their reading of fantasy fiction. And most of them, regardless of their interests in medieval romance literature, had Disney-like fantasies of knights, dragons, chivalry, courtly love, and, of course, fair damsels and maidens who were adored and "idolized" by men who served them.

My student was having none of it, and although today I struggle to remember her name, I remember her paper--and its title--clearly. They are what Baird's op-ed brought most immediately to mind. The title of my student's paper, was "Pedestals Are Dangerous Places." In it, she analyzed the role of women in so many medieval (and more contemporary) romances.

Being placed on a pedestal isn't comfortable, my student argued. It isn't a place anyone should want to be. It's dangerous. It doesn't allow for any freedom of movement. And it's never a place that a woman chooses to be--she has no agency when it comes to pedestal-standing. A pedestal is where she is put, whether she likes it or not. Short of being imprisoned in a small dungeon (or tall tower), being placed on a pedestal is one of the most restrictive and perilous and lonely fates anyone can suffer.

Not that Baird ignores the dangers of pedestals in her piece--statues are, as she observes, "exposed" to "the elements, bird droppings and political winds."

Ahhhh. The shifting winds of politics can blow anyone down. And thus the fate of statues of Lenin, Cecil Rhodes, Saddam Hussein, Joe Paterno, all vainglorious men whose public monuments have been pulled down after their fall and disgrace.

And thus the fate of Confederate generals and politicians whose bronzed effigies (and stained glass windows) are now being pulled down as shameful commemorations of the institution of slavery, of white supremacy, and of treason rather than as reminders of a glorious and romantic "lost cause."

(As a note on the unpredictability of pedestals: USA Today reports that, just as the statues of men who fought to retain the institution of slavery are coming down in the U.S., statues honoring Josef Stalin are going up in a Russia now nostalgic for its own lost cause.)

So the answer to the question of whether we should put women on pedestals really isn't all that clear to me, the more I consider it. The truth is, I've never been fond of the public monuments in stone and bronze honoring "great" men and their achievements--to be honest, I don't think many of these statues are great works of art, and I can't recall any trip I've made where I've paid much attention to them, whether it's Nelson on his column in Trafalgar Square or Napoleon on his in the Place Vendôme. (Now that I come to think of it, however, I did visit the Lincoln Memorial once--it was on a group tour, and I had to get off the bus with everyone else and spend an obligatory five minutes.)

But whether or not you love Mt. Rushmore and think women need a giant carved mountain plunked down in the middle of nowhere too, what Baird's op-ed makes clear is that, when it comes to the vicissitudes of public sculpture, women haven't had the same opportunities to rise or fall as men.

Sure, we seem to be comfortable enough with some female statues. Allegorical figures are always safe. Who doesn't love Lady Liberty, out there in New York harbor, on her plinth? A robed female form, representing the Roman goddess of Libertas. Yeah, okay, safe enough. And just to make certain no human woman gets too uppity or inspired by this imposing female role model, let's make sure she's not only confined to her pedestal, but let's stick her on an island too (and restrict public access while we're at it).

Justice, Dublin Castle
And then there's Justice, famously figured at the Supreme Court Building. We often "remember" soaring, free-standing figures like the one to the right. But be careful! True, that is  a sculpture of Justice on a pedestal, but this representation of justice is found in Dublin, high above the Cork Hill entrance to Dublin Castle.

While the allegorical Justice is actually figured in three separate places at the United States Supreme Court, the most notable figure is alongside the steps of the main entrance to the court. But in this sculpture, The Contemplation of Justice, she's not on a pedestal (however risky a place that might be).

Instead, she's clutched in the hand of a seated female figure, who herself is firmly attached to a 50-ton marble block. Justice is certainly not going to fall. But neither will she soar and inspire: in fact, she's so tiny she is hard to see, while the stolid figure gripping her is not going to rouse anyone to great accomplishments. The seated figure's "action" is reduced to sitting. And looking. Although the title of James Earl Fraser's piece suggests the seated figure is thoughtfully considering Justice, she seems instead to be placidly staring off into space. 

James Earl Frasier,
Contemplation of Justice,
Supreme Court, Washington D. C.

Fraser himself described Contemplation as having a head and body "expressive" of "beauty" and "intelligence," while the companion figure in The Guardian of Law, seated on the other side of the steps--a male figure--is "powerful, erect, and vigilant. He waits with concentrated attention, holding in his left hand the tablet of laws, backed by the sheathed sword, symbolic of enforcement through law.” (The other two representations of justice are solidly captured and contained in a bas-relief on the base of lamppost and in a frieze inside the courtroom.)

Allegorical figures may be one thing, but real, actual, human women are quite another when it comes to commemoration and remembrance. I know, I know--there are lots of Virgin Marys and plenty of female saints out there too, but it seems to me it would be even harder to become a mother of god than to become the embodiment of justice or victory or liberty or the three graces . . . 

Aside from allegorical and religious female sculptures, the figures are pretty bleak. In 2011, Carl Shane reported these astonishing numbers: 
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.
A more recent study shows the situation has improved--of more than 6,900 recorded works, 9 percent of the outdoor sculptures are female. A whole one percent increase! Still, only a "grand total of nine national park sites are dedicated to women’s history--out of 411."

The figures for New York's Central Park are representative. Simply put, there are no statues honoring women in Central Park (unless you count Alice in Wonderland, Mother Goose, Shakespeare's Juliet--though she's with Romeo--and a scattering of angels, nymphs and allegorical figures.) But there are 23 sculptures of men, including a fourteenth-century Polish king, the Scottish poet Robert Burns, and the German composer Ludwig von Beethoven.

Across the country, in San Francisco, the situation is much the same. Of the 87 public statues in the city, only two women are represented: Florence Nightingale and Senator Diane Feinstein. (In her piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, Heather Knight describes the city's public artwork as "monuments to male supremacy.")

In the U.K., it's a similar disheartening story. As Caroline Criado-Perez reports, "I sorted the UK’s statues by gender--a mere 2.7 per cent are of historical, non-royal women." By her reckoning, based on the U.K. database of the Public Monuments & Sculpture Association, there are some 925 public statues, only 158 of them female. 

In her March 2016 piece in The New Statesman, she notes that your best bet for being placed on a pedestal, if you're female, is to be "a mythical or allegorical figure, a famous virgin, royal or nude." Of the 158 female sculptures, the overwhelming majority are of allegorical figures. If you're an actual human woman, you don't stand much of a chance: 
By far the least likely route to having a statue erected of you . . . is to have been a woman who actually existed and achieved something in the past. Only 71 statues . . . of historical women are listed in the database. Forty-six of those are of royalty--over 50 per cent. Twenty-nine alone are of Queen Victoria.
That leaves us with 25 statues of historical, non-royal women (one of whom is a ghost and only there because she’s looking for the spirit of her murdered husband).

Thomas Thornycraft's magnificent bronze sculpture
of the historical Queen Boudica and her daughters,
Westminster Bridge, London
The question isn't just one of numbers, though. As Baird observes, "Since statues tell us who society deems important, more female figures are in order." And she's undoubtedly right, or at least partly right.  

The comments responding to Baird's op-ed are filled with such ignorance that it makes me think we need statues of women on every corner, if for no other reason than to see these guys' heads explode. As one boob angrily observes, "The women who should be on pedestals are those that stay in their domestic spheres of influence. It's more important for them to rear and raise the next generation than go out and compete with men." 

Writing from Paris (where there are obviously no sculptures of male dumbasses, embarrassments, or mediocrities), another guy writes, "Yes, let's create bogus statues of third-rate 'historical' figures, just because they're women, that'll promote 'equality,' right?" Clearly he assumes no women are "first-rate" historical figures. Ever. 

Another considered, thoughtful comment, this time from Norway: "I cannot stop laughing at this new example of me, me, me, me, me, [sic] feminism. How about we put women on statues when they DO something like men."

And Spain is represented as well, the writer offering this analogy: erecting statues of women is "the equivalent of fighting a high school failure rate by giving everyone an A regardless of test results."

And if the writers' names are any indication, it's not just men, unfortunately. "Dottie" dismisses Baird's essay as "silliness" that is written only because of "the pay offered for this sort of filler."

In response to the overwhelming maleness of public sculpture (and in defiance of people who think like those who commented on Baird's suggestion), there are efforts to erect monuments to notable women. Three new sculptures are being planned in the U.K., all of them funded by private donation and honoring historical women not mythological female abstractions: the suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst, Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson, and comedian Victoria Wood.

In the U.S., the all-volunteer, nonprofit Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Statue Fund is organizing their #MonumentalWomen campaign in order to "break the bronze ceiling," funding a monument dedicated to these two extraordinary American women to be placed in Central Park. 

I'm particularly intrigued by the work of The Whole Story Project, a crowd-sourced "augmented reality" app that "allows artists, coders, historians and everybody else to build, place and celebrate women who’ve changed the world." (Creating virtual monuments of notable women and "placing them" in the real world is surely as worthwhile as catching Pokémon isn't it? Isn't it???) The app is free from the Apple app store and Google Play. (To read more, click here.)

In the end, whatever my reservations about public sculptures commemorating famous people, I think I can support the effort to create monuments to women. As I've tried to show in the hundreds of essays in this blog, there are notable women who have been successful in many fields. 

Whether we celebrate them in words or stone, recognizing them is important.

And it is a matter of equality. Real women have done remarkable things. And real women--like real men--are an incredible, improbable mix of good and bad. Women should be placed on pedestals--if for no other reason than, at some point, we may choose to topple them, just as we are removing men like Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson from exalted heights and bringing them back down to earth.

Update, 19 September 2017: Turner-prize winning artist Gillian Wearing has just received conditional planning permission for the construction of her design for a sculpture of the suffrage leader Millicent Garrett Fawcett to be constructed in Parliament Square (London). Wearing will be the first female artist to have her work in the Square, and Fawcett will be the first female subject of a public sculpture to be erected there.

According to the report in The Guardian:
A detailed model of the monument shows Fawcett holding a sign that reads “Courage calls to courage everywhere,” taken from a speech she gave after the death of fellow campaigner Emily Wilding Davison at the 1913 Epsom Derby.
The aim is to have the sculpture completed by the time of the centenary passage of the Representation of the Peoples Act 1918 in February (the act granted some women over the age of thirty the right to vote for the first time in the U.K.).