How many statues of real women are in Central Park? Currently, the answer is none. There are twenty-three statues of men, including equestrian monuments of fourteenth-century Polish King Wladyslaw II Jagiello and early nineteenth-century Venezuelan Simón Bolívar. There is a statue of Balto, a Siberian Husky, and a bust of Irish-American cellist and composer Victor Herbert. There also are some fictional women in the park: Alice in Wonderland, Mary from The Secret Garden, Mother Goose, and Juliet with her Romeo.

But that is about to change.

(clockwise from top left): Alice, Burnett Fountain, Juliet, Mother Goose. Photo credit: New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, Central Park Monuments.

In 2020, New York City will unveil a statue of women’s rights pioneers Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in Central Park. The unveiling will take place on the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed the right of women to vote in the Constitution. The words of other leaders in the movement to win the vote for women will be inscribed on the sculptural work, including quotations from Sojourner Truth, Lucy Stone, Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, Mary Church Terrell, Carrie Chapman Catt, Anna Howard Shaw, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Alva Belmont, Harriot Stanton Blatch, and Alice Stone Blackwell. The year 2020 also marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Susan B. Anthony.

However, the importance of the statue of Stanton and Anthony extends far beyond anniversaries and birthdays. The Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony Statue Fund, the non-profit organization responsible for the promotion, fundraising, and development of the project, explains that the “absence of sculptures honoring real women reinforces the erroneous view that women have neither made notable achievements nor contributed major advancements to our society.” The statue of Stanton and Anthony will help to correct the invisibility of women in public spaces and to teach the 40 million annual visitors to Central Park about a group of remarkable women in American history.

“She Forged The Thunderbolts and I Fired Them

Together, Stanton and Anthony were leading activists in the movement for voting equality and justice for women, in New York and nationwide. Stanton co-authored the Declaration of Sentiments, a re-writing of the Declaration of Independence to include women, and proclaimed it at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. For several tumultuous decades, Stanton and Anthony traveled, lectured, wrote, petitioned, and canvassed for the vote across the nation. In 1890, they helped to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and organized countless conventions, rallies, marches, and meetings. Congress ratified the Nineteenth Amendment – originally called the Susan B. Anthony Amendment — in 1920. Few early supporters lived to see this final victory; Stanton died in 1902, and Anthony in 1906.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, ca. 1880. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. In her obituary of her longtime friend and collaborator in the New York Times 1902, Anthony wrote “she forged the thunderbolts and I fired them.”

At a ceremony at the New-York Historical Society on July 19, 2018 — the 170th anniversary of the landmark Seneca Falls convention on women’s rights — the Statue Fund unveiled the winning design. Once installed, it will be the first statue of real women in Central Park. Speakers included Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver, Statue Fund officers Pam Elam and Coline Jenkins, Heather Nesle of New York Life, and Meredith Maskara of the Girl Scouts of Greater New York. Design competition jurors Harriet Senie of City College and Kinshasa Conwill of the National Museum of African American History and Culture spoke eloquently about the “many voices” needed to bring the Nineteenth Amendment to fruition, and to make the monument a reality.

The Woman Suffrage Movement Monument will represent a five-year-long collaboration between the Statue Fund, the city, corporate donors, and other nonprofit organizations, from the Central Park Conservancy to the three troops of Girl Scouts who donated over $10,000 from their cookie sales. Throughout, the process has been closely attuned to landmark moments in U.S. women’s history. The selected site at Literary Walk (the south end of the Mall) was announced on November 6, 2017, the centennial of suffrage in New York State, and the Statue Fund issued their call for proposals on the same date. Ninety-one artists submitted proposals, from which four finalists were chosen. The winning design is by sculptor Meredith Bergmann.

Meredith Bergmann, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Woman Suffrage Movement Monument (maquette), 2018. Photo by Glenn Castellano, New-York Historical Society.

At the event, Bergmann described how her design goes beyond sculptural portraits of Anthony and Stanton to depict a broader social and political movement. Stanton, shown seated in the traditional pose of writers and philosophers, is depicted in the act of writing on a scroll that unfurls down the pedestal, bearing quotations from other women leaders and culminating in the text of the Nineteenth Amendment. The final element is a ballot box, which links the nineteenth century struggles for abolition and suffrage, and serves as “an invitation to viewers to participate in the essence of democracy.”

“Incidents” in Central Park

The history of statues in Central Park reflects the turbulent history of civic engagement in New York City, and ongoing debates over the use and meaning of public space.

When Frederick Law Olmstead (1822-1903) and Calvert Vaux (1824-1895) won the public design competition for Central Park in 1858 with their famous “Greensward Plan,” they intended to highlight “Nature first and 2nd and 3rd — Architecture after awhile.” Despite their aversion to symmetrical arrangements, they did create a quarter-mile long Mall, lined with elm trees and capped by a stepped Terrace at its northern end. According to Olmstead and Vaux, both of whom were familiar with European city parks, it was “essential” for New York to contain “a grand promenade,” although they sought to keep it “subservient” to their naturalistic design. The Terrace is the only place where Vaux and Olmstead intended to incorporate statuary. However, the people of New York had other ideas.  

Beginning with a bust of the German poet Friedrich Schiller in 1859, groups of citizens — several from European immigrant communities — gave gifts of statuary to the city. Reluctantly, Vaux and Olmstead (who referred to the sculptures as “incidents”) countenanced the placement of these gifts in pairs along the Mall, which was the most formal and symmetrical space in the Park. By 1873, guidelines to weigh the significance of the subject and the artistic merit of the monument were in place.

Pierre Martel, artist, and J.C. Geissler, lithographer. Martel’s New York Central Park, 1864. Lithograph. New-York Historical Society Library. The Mall, culminating in the Terrace and fountain, is visible at the middle of the image.

Bethesda Terrace, ca. 1872. New-York Historical Society Library.

These monuments were a way to show off the accomplishments of American artists at a time when large-scale public sculpture was becoming increasingly visible in U.S. cities, due in part to public desire to commemorate the Civil War. Beyond memorializing the dead, scholar Michele Bogart argues, such sculptures served to promote an orderly, unified, “uncontroversial myth of civic community” and virtue — a community from which individual women and citizens of color were almost totally excluded.  

Monuments and Women in Central Park and Beyond

While no historical woman is the subject of a statue in Central Park, women are not totally absent. Although few women sculptors received monumental commissions, Central Park contains some exceptions. Perhaps the most iconic is the Bethesda Fountain’s Angel of the Waters, located in the Terrace at the northern end of the Mall. Designed in 1862 by sculptor Emma Stebbins (1815-1882), Angel of the Waters was finally installed in 1872, with the backing of her brother, Parks Commissioner Henry Stebbins.

Emma Stebbins, Angel of the Waters, ca. 1872. New-York Historical Society Library.

Shortly afterwards, an unofficial moratorium on new commemorative sculptures in city parks went into effect, although exceptions were made for Harriet Tubman (West 122nd Street, 2007), Eleanor Roosevelt (Riverside Park, 1996), Gertrude Stein (Bryant Park, 1992), and Golda Meir (Broadway and 39th Street, 1992). These four individuals joined Joan of Arc (Riverside Park, 1915) as the five historical women currently memorialized with sculptures in New York City.

Anna Hyatt Huntington, Joan of Arc, originally modeled in 1910. Photo credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Alison Saar, Maquette for Swing Low: Harriet Tubman Memorial, 2007. New-York Historical Society.

Speakers at the unveiling of the Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Woman Suffrage Movement Monument expressed their hope that it would not be unique. They hope it will be but the first in a line of many public monuments commemorating women’s history, which will serve as inspiration for future generations. To that end, in June 2018, first lady Chirlane McCray announced the formation of She Built NYC, a new effort to commission a public monument or artwork on city property that honors women’s history in New York City. Local residents are invited to nominate individual women, groups of women, or significant events from women’s history for future public commemoration.

– Jeanne Gutierrez and Nicole Mahoney, Center for Women’s History

Top image credits: (left to right) Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, ca. 1880. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division; Meredith Bergmann, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Woman Suffrage Movement Monument (maquette), 2018. Photo by Glenn Castellano, New-York Historical Society.