‘Equal dignity’: Thanks to She Built NYC, New York City will double its statues honoring real women

Of the hundreds of sculptures and memorials spread across the five boroughs, only a handful currently depict women

Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Anyone living in New York long enough learns how to ignore certain things. Maybe it’s a survival mechanism; we can only absorb so much sensory input before we begin to feel overwhelmed. After nearly seven years as a New Yorker, I have become a master at tuning out my surroundings, for better or worse. At various times I am somehow both hyper conscious and blithely unaware of what—or who—I’m passing as I walk through the city’s varied neighborhoods and parks. 

It wasn’t until I heard of She Built NYC, a public-arts campaign committed to honoring “pioneering women by installing monuments that celebrate their extraordinary contributions to the city and beyond,” that I began to pay better attention to the hundreds of statues and monuments scattered around the city. According to NYC Parks, there are approximately 250 sculptures across the five boroughs, 125 of which depict historical figures. 

“The monuments and permanent art collection in New York City’s parks constitutes the greatest outdoor public art museum in the United States,” states the NYC Parks’ website. “A veritable ‘who’s who’ of American art, it includes the work of nineteenth-century masters such as Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Daniel Chester French, and John Quincy Adams Ward.” 

Of those 125 sculptures, only a handful depict women. A few represent mythical or literary figures such as the angel Bethesda and Alice in Wonderland. Only five honor real women—but thanks to She Built NYC, that’s about to change. An open call for potential subjects drew more than 2,000 nominations, from which a group of six monument subjects was selected. The first commission, a 40-foot-tall steel likeness of Shirley Chisholm at the southeast corner of Prospect Park, was expected to be completed by the end of 2020 but is delayed due to COVID-19.

Gertrude Stein
Gertrude Stein. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan
Golda Meir.
Golda Meir. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

She Built NYC

She Built NYC was introduced in 2018 by New York City’s first lady Chirlane McCray, Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, and the Department of Cultural Affairs “to rectify [the gender] imbalance” in the city’s monuments and “ensure that New York’s full story is told for generations to come.” It will take a long time to fill the women-shaped gaps in the story told through marble, bronze, and granite—but by adding five new monuments, She Built NYC will double the number of famous women memorialized by the city. 

Today, the nomination list has more than 300 suggestions from which future monuments will be determined. Ranked by number of nominations received, patron saint of immigrants Francesca Xavier Cabrini is currently number one with 219, followed by activist Jane Jacobs with 93. Suggestions range from individuals—Jackie Kennedy, Sojourner Truth, and Frida Khalo—to broader themes such as “women firefighters,” “domestic workers,” and “suffragettes.” Last (but not least) on the list of single nominations is Fran Lee, a public health advocate who championed New York City’s “pooper-scooper” law in the ‘60s and ‘70s with memorable appearances on The Tonight Show and The Mike Douglas Show.

In 1968, Chisholm became the first black woman to serve in Congress, representing a district that included the Brooklyn neighborhood where she grew up. Four years later, she became the first black woman to seek the presidential nomination from either major political party. Now, thanks to She Built NYC and artists Amanda Williams and Olalekan Jeyifous, Chisholm will be the first female historical figure to have a public monument dedicated to her in the borough of Brooklyn.

Chisholm reviewing political statistics in 1965.
Chisholm reviewing political statistics in 1965. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Following in the footprint of Chisholm’s monument are planned sculptures of singer Billie Holiday in Queens, women’s health advocate Dr. Helen Rodriguez Trías in the Bronx, and lighthouse keeper Katherine Walker in Staten Island. Manhattan will get two new monuments: one near Grand Central Terminal dedicated to Civil Rights’ icon Elizabeth Jennings Graham, and one in Greenwich Village dedicated to transgender activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.

Just five women

A bronze equestrian statue of George Washington in Union Square, dedicated in 1866, is the oldest sculpture in the New York City Parks collection. Over the next century and a half, there were about two dozen plaques and memorials dedicated to women in the city—but of the five female statues, only one was installed before the 1980s. The Joan of Arc memorial, sculpted by Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington and located in Riverside Park at Riverside Drive and West 93rd Street, was dedicated in 1915. The 20-foot-tall monument depicts a larger-than-life Joan of Arc on horseback, cast in bronze on a pedestal of Mohegan granite. 

Huntington submitted her first Joan of Arc sculpture to the prestigious Salon in Paris. According to NYC Parks, “It received an honorable mention from the jury, nevertheless skeptical that such an accomplished work of art could have been made solely by a woman.” But the New York Monument committee was impressed and awarded her the commission. The Gothic pedestal includes limestone blocks from the tower in Rouen, France, where Joan of Arc was imprisoned before being burned at the stake in 1431.

Joan of Arc.
Joan of Arc. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan
Joan of Arc's pedestal.
Joan of Arc’s pedestal. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Nearly 70 years later, Golda Meir, the fourth prime minister of Israel, was honored in 1984 with a bust sculpted by Beatrice Goldfine at Broadway and 39th Street. Next came monuments to Gertrude Stein in Bryant Park (1992), Eleanor Roosevelt at West 72nd Street and Riverside Drive (1996), and finally, a Harriet Tubman Memorial at West 122nd Street, St. Nicholas Avenue, and Frederick Douglass Boulevard in 2008. 

Meir’s bust receives much less fanfare than the other four women. At some point over the last three decades, her rough-hewn likeness lost its pink granite pedestal and explanatory plaque. Today, she sits on a simple metal base in a triangular pedestrian plaza right outside of a Chase bank; her bulbous nose has been rubbed shiny. 

Author and art collector Gertrude Stein was no stranger to seeing herself portrayed in works of art, including famous portraits by Félix Vallotton and Pablo Picasso. Although Stein is most associated with Paris, she was born in Pennsylvania. In the 1930s, when she arrived in New York to begin a speaking tour, she was welcomed by a throng of journalists eager to see the famous literary giant in person. A sign in Times Square flashed the words “Gertrude Stein has Arrived.”

According to Smithsonian Magazine, “Front-page articles carried by nearly every newspaper in New York City described her stocky stature and eccentric accoutrements—masculine shoes and a Robin Hoodesque hat.” Today, a small, seated Stein—resembling Vallotton’s vision more than Picasso’s—sits behind the main branch of the New York Public Library in Bryant Park. 

Eleanor Roosevelt was born in New York City in 1884 and a little more than a century later, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton helped dedicate sculptor Penelope Jencks’ “heroic scale” likeness. Located at the south entrance to Riverside Park, Roosevelt is shown half-seated, leaning against a boulder, one hand on her chin in contemplation. She’s surrounded by several inscriptions in granite, including one attributed to Roosevelt herself: “Where after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity.”

The future is female

Unveiled just nine days after Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election, the Harriet Tubman Memorial, titled “Swing Low,” was sculpted by Alison Saar. I’ve lived just a block away from the Tubman statue for years, but was largely unaware of its significance until recently. Unlike the other women (and most of the men) in the city’s collection, Saar’s Tubman isn’t a traditional portrait. 

At the dedication, Saar said, “I chose to depict Harriet Tubman not so much as a conductor of the Underground Railroad, but as a train itself, an unstoppable locomotive that worked towards improving the lives of slaves for most of her long life. I wanted not merely to speak of her courage or illustrate her commitment, but to honor her compassion.”

Inspired by West African masks, Saar set stylized portraits of “anonymous passengers” of the Underground Railroad into Tubman’s skirt. Tubman’s face is solemn, powerful, and determined. The larger-than-life statue is a forceful sight; Tubman appears to be attached to the stone base by a tangle of bronze roots, simultaneously appearing to be held back and in the process of breaking free.

Tubman may have been the first black woman honored in bronze in the five boroughs, but it’s nice to know that she won’t be the last. At least once every five years, the public will get a chance to add their suggestions to the master database from which all future commissions will be selected; the form is expected to be open again on or before June 2020. Thanks to She Built NYC, future generations of women living in or visiting New York will have many more figures to look up to—both literally and figuratively. 

If you go

Joan of Arc is located at West 93rd Street and Riverside Drive; Golda Meir is at Broadway and West 39th Street; Gertrude Stein is in Bryant Park just behind the library closest to West 40th Street; Eleanor Roosevelt is at West 72nd Street and Riverside Drive; Harriet Tubman is at West 122nd Street, St. Nicholas Avenue, and Frederick Douglass Boulevard; and the Shirley Chisholm monument will be erected at the southeast corner of Prospect Park.

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