Martha S. Jones is the SOBA presidential professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and author of “Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America” and, in 2020, “Vanguard: A History of African American Women’s Politics.”
Over the last two years, fierce debate has kept Confederate monuments in the news for weeks on end. But the lessons from that controversy have evidently already been forgotten.
This week, New York City’s Public Design Commission approved Central Park’s first monument to the struggle for women’s rights. Instead of adopting an inclusive tribute to representative women who have shaped the city and the nation, just two figures — Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony — will be memorialized in the park. Lamentably, these women stood for a narrow, often racist vision of women’s rights, and a monument lionizing them will send all the wrong messages to young women and girls.
One lesson of the debate over Confederate monuments is how the erection of statues can be an exercise in mythmaking. While purported to honor military greats and the war dead, these memorials were in fact conceived as tributes to the South’s mythical Lost Cause and white supremacy.
Unfortunately, Central Park’s women’s monument also trades in myth. Initially proposed as a way to remedy the startling absence of monuments to “real,” rather than fictional, women, proponents began with a list of some 50 women, all New Yorkers worthy of remembering. When Stanton and Anthony were singled out as the focus of a statue, monument organizers rooted their choice in Stanton’s role convening the 1848 women’s meeting at Seneca Falls, N.Y., the pair’s leadership within the early women’s suffrage movement and the way their long-term partnership shaped thinking about women’s rights.
Unspoken, however, was the degree to which valorizing Stanton is a divisive matter. When Myriam Miedzian, vice president of the statue fund, termed Stanton the “Thomas Jefferson of women,” her analogy may have been more apt than she intended. Stanton was a thinker who enduringly shaped American ideas about the body politic and who, like Jefferson, never distanced herself from white supremacy.
Stanton was, as her biographer Lori Ginzberg has put it, nearly singular in her “openly racist defense of women’s suffrage.” As a symbol, she embodies a deep commitment to white American women as equal to their fathers, husbands and sons.
At the same time, however, Stanton stands for an impoverished vision of equality that never admitted that black Americans, male and female, were her equals. As Stanton’s partner, Anthony was too often complicit with this view. And when it came to writing the earliest history of women’s suffrage, Anthony and Stanton elevated their own ingenuity and activism above that of all others — black and white, men and women — who also labored for the rights of women. These were myths of their own making.
Monuments reflect debates about the past and then shape our shared landscapes. In the case of women’s monuments, the example of Tennessee is instructive. The state was the 36th and deciding state to ratify the 19th Amendment’s endorsement of women’s suffrage in 1920.
Today it has two monuments to the women’s rights movement: The first, unveiled in Knoxville in 2006, included three figures: Elizabeth Avery Meriwether, Lizzie Crozier French and Anne Dallas Dudley, accompanied by a quote from Harriot Eaton Stanton Blatch, daughter of Cady Stanton. This monument commemorates the movement as having been led by white women. By doing so, it distorted historical reality.
A decade later, in 2016, Tennessee corrected the record, erecting a second monument. Among the five figures depicted was Frankie Pierce, an African American suffragist included as a reminder to Tennesseans that both black and white women had been part of realizing the vote for women, both in their state and nationally.
New York’s statue could easily have done the same. Ample room existed in the Central Park monument design for another New Yorker worthy of the distinction because of her role in shaping the women’s rights movement. Sojourner Truth was born and enslaved upstate and called New York City home in the years after she claimed her freedom in 1826.
In 1850, Truth appeared at the first national women’s rights convention in Worchester, Mass., a year in which Cady Stanton remained at home and Anthony was altogether absent, yet to be enticed by Stanton to join in. Truth was among the first of African American women to become part of the budding movement, and her speeches frankly explained how combating racism and sexism together should be part of any campaign for women’s rights. Truth stands for a vision of women’s rights free of racism and inclusive of those, like her, who began their lives enslaved and well beyond the bounds of the body politic.
Truth’s name was among those that vied, early in the planning process, for a place in Central Park. In an early model for the Stanton-Anthony monument, her name was included on a scroll that unfurled across the lap of the seated figure of Stanton. The final monument, approved this week, erased even that possibility. The scroll is gone and so is any public acknowledgment of Truth.
And it did not have to be this way. Monuments to Truth stand in other places where she lived and worked — New Paltz, N.Y., Florence, Mass., and Battle Creek, Mich. — recognizing how significant a figure she was. If, for some reason, organizers wished not to commemorate Truth’s pathbreaking role, they had other options that would have allowed for the creation of a more accurate monument. (Full disclosure, one possibility planners considered early on was my aunt, Jane Cooke Wright — a pioneering cancer researcher, though not someone known for women’s rights advocacy).
While it took more than a century to undo the wrong of Confederate monuments, the effort against allowing a tribute to Stanton and Anthony to stand unanswered must begin today. Promisingly, while the details of the Central Park monument are set, other efforts have begun to counter it. On the eve of the unveiling of the Central Park monument, New York City’s first lady, Chirlane McCray, announced plans for the “She Built NYC” project, which will soon bring the figures of five additional women to the city’s parks. Among them is Brooklyn’s Shirley Chisholm, the nation’s first African American woman member of Congress and candidate for president. For the foreseeable future, however, the city’s public landscape will remain a contested terrain.
This debate is not simply one over abstract meaning or historical accuracy. Planners of the Central Park monument have promoted it as especially important in the lives of the city’s school-aged girls. Fund leader Lynn Sherr explains that the monument “gives more little girls someone to look up to. Someone who looks like them.”
Unintentionally, her words echo those spoken by Michelle Obama in 2009 at the unveiling in the Capitol of a bust-likeness of Sojourner Truth: “Now, many young boys and girls like my own daughters will come to Emancipation Hall and see the face of a woman who looks like them.” Truth, Mrs. Obama explained, was becoming a companion to the figures of Stanton, Anthony and Lucretia Mott, all of whom had been memorialized in the Capitol since 1920.
Excluding her from the monument in Central Park then is a missed opportunity. Instead of serving all girls, the monument to Stanton and Anthony commemorates figures who never managed to fully engage the world beyond their own pedestals. Too often, they advocated a narrow view of women’s rights constrained by discredited ideas rooted in racism and class prejudice. A monument to them not only distorts the history of the women’s movement. It also narrows the number of young girls who may find in it inspiration.
Sojourner Truth, by contrast, knew little in the way of privilege. Her vision for women’s rights insisted that we imagine a nation in which women’s futures were no longer troubled by color, status and other man-made differences. That is a vision worth promoting, for our daughters and for ourselves.