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Only five of New York City’s 150 statues are of women – now the city is looking to change that

‘Women have been contributing in significant ways but you wouldn’t know it by walking around or looking at the figures we see today’

Mythili Sampathkumar
New York
Monday 30 July 2018 21:11 BST
She Built NYC: New Yorkers nominate inspirational women to become statues

New York City has launched a new initiative to bring more statues of women to the city and letting the public decide who the first one honours.

The She Built NYC campaign was launched last month by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s wife Chirlane McCray and Alicia Glen, deputy mayor for housing and economic development, and a city website catered specifically to women’s public services allows residents to nominate a woman of historical significance for a new statue up until 1 August.

Ms Glen told The Independent: “She Built NYC puts women in their rightful place – on pedestals.”

Per the mayor’s office, residents can also nominate a group or event to be honoured as long as it involved women of significance to the Big Apple.

“Nominated events must have happened at least 20 years ago; nominated individuals must no longer be living and known for an event, movement, or action that took place at least 20 years ago,” the guidance on the nomination form states.

Of the 1,000-plus monuments in the five boroughs of New York, 150 are statues and just five are of real women.

The most famous – Liberty Enlightening the World (aka the Statue of Liberty) and Fearless Girl, a bronze statue of a young girl staring down the famous Bull of Wall Street – join the host of statues of fictional female characters. The Fearless Girl also was not a public works project, but the installation of an artist that the cimasty has allowed to remain, given its popularity.

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But, when it comes to honouring women who actually existed and made history, the city falls woefully short.

Eleanor Roosevelt, Israel’s first female prime minister Golda Meir, Joan of Arc, novelist and poet Gertrude Stein, and abolitionist Harriet Tubman are the only ones. None of them are in Central Park, where several male statues reside.

Ms Tubman is the only woman of colour represented and Ms Meir is only represented by a small bust.

The She Built NYC campaign seeks to rectify those issues, at least in some small measure.

As CEO of the Girl Scouts of Greater New York Meridith Maskara told The Independent, “the reality is women have been contributing [for all of history] in significant ways but you wouldn’t know that by walking around or looking at the figures we see today”.

Ms Glen agreed, saying the statues, plaques, and memorials around the city “can either inspire young girls to dream big, or it can perpetuate the message that women have not contributed to society – something we know is untrue”.

The city’s Department of Cultural Affairs “has committed up to $10m over the next four years to commissioning new permanent public monuments and commemorations. This new monument will be funded through that allocation,” Jane Meyer, the mayor’s deputy press secretary, told The Independent.

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After the 1 August deadline for nominations, submissions will be reviewed by a commission put together by the mayor’s office and a shortlist of nominees will be chosen with a final decision to be announced in January 2019.

The goal, Ms Meyer said, is to make sure “public spaces represent our diversity and values”.

“The message that lack of representation sends is that these people have no value and did not make contributions to our city. This first step we are taking will help us more accurately show the diversity in the people who helped make New York City so great,” Ms McCray said in a statement.

One of the main hurdles for the city up until this point was that there was no single list of all the city’s statues and monuments since they fall under the purview of several different agencies in different boroughs.

The mayor’s office has hired someone to compile that list in an effort to conduct a comprehensive review, particularly in light of the controversy of monuments honouring slave-owning Confederate generals from the civil war era last August after the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia.

One of the women nominated for a statue is Lillian Wald, a social worker, nurse and community activist who advocated for the first school for nursing in the city and was based in the Lower East Side neighbourhood of Manhattan during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Ms Wald established the Henry Street Settlement as a way of bringing nursing services to the poor, immigrant population of the area and the organisation is still serving the community of approximately 50,000 people through various social services, arts, mental health, and homelessness relief programmes.

Katie Vogel, a public historian who works for Henry Street, told The Independent part of the reason they nominated Ms Wald for a statue was her work with low-income immigrant populations after she noticed the “growing inequality” in the city.

Ms Wald “pioneered the field of public health nursing” for these populations, Ms Vogel said, standing in the same dining room from which Ms Wald worked, underneath her portrait.

The city has always been home to new immigrants and now is no different, even in the current political climate coming from Washington. Her statue would be a way for the city to honour that commitment to being a new home for so many, campaigners say.

Though she was of German-Jewish ancestry, Ms Wald was also a founding board member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, campaigning for civil rights for African Americans, Ms Vogel said.

The current site of Henry Street Settlement was also the site of the city’s first public playground, courtesy of Ms Wald.

Ms Vogel said her statue would also be a dedication to the LGBTQ+ community. Though Ms Wald was not public about her sexual orientation, letters have revealed she did have romantic relationships with women during her life.

Another historical figure nominated for the She Built NYC campaign is Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts in 1912.

Despite Ms Low’s family ties to the Confederate side during the US civil war, the organisation has evolved and become an advocate for minorities and its current national CEO is Sylvia Acevedo, the group’s first Latina leader.

The Girl Scouts in the US alone have 2.6 million members with 58 million alumni.

Ms Maskara, who leads the New York division of the national organisation and serves 30,000 girls around the New York City area, said they wanted to honour because her “legacy is strong”.

“She wrote the Girl Scout manual right here in New York City,” Ms Maskara explained of Ms Low, who had moved the headquarters of the group from Savannah, Georgia, to the city in 1915.

“The empowerment that she represents” in fostering female leadership skills is what made Ms Maskara say she wanted to see the statue of Ms Low in midtown Manhattan where young tourists from all over the world could be inspired by it.

“Our girls need to see fair and balanced and equitable representation of our contributions to history,” Ms Maskara said.

Lulu Lolo, a New York-based artist, has been beating this drum since October 2015.

Ms Lolo, standing at the foot of the Joan of Arc monument in Riverside Park on the west side of the city, has been dressing up as the French warrior and carrying a shield with the words “Where are the Women?” on it to bring awareness to the issue through a live, ongoing art project.

“There are no monuments to women in Central Park – except for Alice in Wonderland and Mother Goose,” Ms Lolo said, slightly rolling her eyes in frustration.

As part of her project, Ms Lolo also asked people who they would nominate and she said several had asked for a statue of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to be elected to US Congress who represented parts of Manhattan and Queens.

Some city residents have asked ask why the mayor’s office has undertaken this issue now. Marsha Weinstein, the president of the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites, told The Independent that interest in more statues may have been sparked by the upcoming centennial celebration of women’s suffrage.

Ms Weinstein has worked extensively on promoting ways to honour the women who fought for the right to vote before the historic 1920 ruling.

Ms Weinstein said the #MeToo social media movement to encourage women to stand up against sexual harassment and the massive Women’s March events the past few years has brought to light voices that were once “underground”.

She also said it could be “because of the recent public awareness of [a] women’s proper place in society...which is everywhere she want[s] to be”.

The She Built NYC campaign is running until 1 August.

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