Today is International Women’s Day, a day during which we celebrate women’s accomplishments and build towards a society in which women face no obstacles due to their gender. Over the past 200 years, women have made huge strides in business, government, politics and more, but there are very few statues that memorialize them and their accomplishments. Even in a city as progressive as New York, there are only five statues built in honor of trailblazing women. However, there’s momentum to change that through several initiatives that will improve female representation in memorials. I spoke to Four Freedoms Park Conservancy's CEO Howard Axel about how the physical landscape is changing with women playing a larger part in the future visual identity of New York City.
There are very few women's statues in New York City. Which ones do exist and where?
Howard Axel: Yes, as far as I am aware there are currently only five statues in Manhattan that honor historic women. There’s the Joan of Arc Statue in Riverside Park on 93rd Street, a bust of Golda Meir on Broadway and 39th Street, a bronze statue of Gertrude Stein in Bryant Park, Eleanor Roosevelt’s statue in Riverside Park at West 72nd Street, and a bronze of Harriet Tubman on St. Nicholas Avenue and West 122nd Street. Besides statues, there is other memorialization of women in NYC like the plaque honoring Emma Lazarus near Battery Park, or the birdbath dedicated to Edith Deacon Martin in Central Park. However, with significantly more men memorialized, it’s certainly a commentary on the figures throughout history we’ve chosen to immortalize.
Why do you think there are so few statues?
In the United States, for a very long time, women were outside the public sphere both in governance and the official economy. Frequently their human rights and everyday needs were systematically ignored. It Is hard to Imagine that we needed an amendment to the Constitution (the 19th) to ensure women had the right to vote in every state and that was not until 1920! As is all too evident, men have predominantly held the reigns of how history is presented which meant that women who were in the public sphere were overlooked. So, it’s not surprising that there are few memorials to women.
How is NYC working to counteract the lack of women's statues?
I can’t speak for the city as a whole but there is a huge push for more female representation in the built landscape of New York City. This summer, there will be ten bronze statues of inspiring women installed throughout the city, by Statue for Equality. They plan on honoring the likes of Oprah, Pink, and Tracy Dyson among others. She Built NYC is another initiative commissioning statues of five trailblazing women who affected extraordinary change in New York City, like Rep. Shirley Chisholm and Billie Holiday. In fact, Brooklyn will get a 407-acre state park dedicated to Shirley Chisholm that we’re thrilled to welcome into the New York State Park community.
Do you anticipate there will be a woman's statue at FDR Four Freedoms Park? Is that something you would like to see in the future?
We don’t anticipate any significant changes to Kahn’s design, however Four Freedoms Park Conservancy, which operates and manages the park, has been meeting with artists, especially in the digital space, to think about how we can include other ways to honor women, particularly Eleanor Roosevelt or Frances Perkins, the first woman appointed to U.S. cabinet, under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Through augmented reality, and other inventions FFPC is always looking for ways to become more inclusive and changing how people experience their environment.
If you could personally choose to commission a statue of a woman who would you choose?
I can’t choose just one! My top two would be Toni Morrison and Marie Curie.