Although the pace at which monuments are being removed — either by rallying crowds or local governments — has accelerated after recent protests, efforts to remove paeans to incomplete histories have been going on for decades.
As recently as 2011, only 394 out of 5,193 public outdoor sculptures in the United States were of women, according to data from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Art Inventories Catalog, as reported by The Washington Post. At that time, women weren’t featured in any of the 44 national memorials managed by the National Park Service such as Mount Rushmore or the Lincoln Memorial, according to research by art historian Erika Doss, also reported in The Post.
In New York City, five out of 150 statues of historical figures — aside from those in commemoration of a concept or a fictional character — are women, according to She Built NYC, a group aiming to increase public monuments to women. As these male statues fall, the opportunity to replace them with those of women — and a more complete historical record — opens up.
But the reason the country lacks statues of female historical figures is not necessarily because of lack of political power. In fact, many of the statues of Confederate icons were funded and organized by white women.
“What white women did is exert political and economical power to raise statues to white men, to uphold the white supremacist patriarchy,” Philadelphia artist Sharon Hayes said.
In 2017, Hayes exhibited a temporary installation addressing the lack of memorials to women in the city’s called, “If They Should Ask.” When she began to research why Philadelphia has only two statues of women in a city with hundreds of memorials to men, she assumed it was because women lacked the power and means. What she found, however, was white women did have a lot of power in the late 19th and 20th centuries and used it to erect these now problematic statues of men.
“It’s not that women were ignored, but they also participated in buying into their own exclusion from the patriarchy. We need to stop thinking about this as women not having power because [white] women had an incredible amount of power,” Hayes said.
The base of her installation was inscribed with the names of 78 remarkable Philadelphia women, most of whom made national contributions.
While scholars do not necessarily agree that an incomplete historical record is corrected with a one-for-one replacement of a problematic male figure with a statue of an accomplished woman, it is certainly an opportunity for physical change. Here are some remarkable women currently being championed.
D.C. Council candidate Marcus Goodwin has authored a petition to remove Washington D.C.’s Emancipation Memorial statue, which depicts a towering Abraham Lincoln granting freedom to a kneeling slave. Goodwin suggested a contemporary like Tubman, the Maryland-born freed slave and abolitionist who was one of the most prolific “conductors” on the Underground Railroad and served as a spy and guerrilla soldier in the Union Army.
More than 22,700 people have signed the move to pay homage to the prolific singer, songwriter and philanthropist instead of the Confederate leaders officers currently memorialized. Parton runs the Imagination Library, which mails a free book to children once a month from birth to age 5, as well as the Dollywood Foundation which works to increase education opportunities. A Tennessee legislator, Republican state Rep. Jeremy Faison, also suggested replacing a statue of former KKK leader and Confederate soldier Nathan Bedford Forrest in the capitol building with one of Parton in December.
Over 150,000 people have signed on to replace a statue of Christopher Columbus with Johnson in Elizabeth, N.J., where she was born. Johnson was a transgender rights activist who was a leader in the Stonewall Riots in 1969. She was found dead in her apartment under suspicious circumstances in 1992. A 19-year-old Elizabeth resident, Celine Da Silva, created the petition.
Three years ago, artist Liz Ensz organized a petition to replace statues of former Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in Baltimore. Only 289 others signed the petition, which is now closed, to melt down those figures and cast a sculpture of Lacks, a poor tobacco farmer whose cancer cells were taken from her without her consent in 1951. Those cells, known as the “HeLa” cells, became one of the most important tools in modern medicine, and were ultimately used to study the effects of toxins, drugs and hormones on cancer cells, develop the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and in vitro fertilization. Although Ensz’s petition closed quietly, the statues have been removed and Lack’s name frequently surfaces as someone to commemorate in its place.
This piece was updated on July 8 at 5:30 p.m. to update the number of people who have signed the petition for a statue of Marsha P. Johnson