Where Are All the Female Statues in Central Park?

Aug 28, 2014 at 8:41 AM ET

New York City is a place that attracts luminaries. This is the city where novelist Edith Wharton was born, where singer Billie Holiday lived, where social activist Dorothy Day did her life’s work and where much of the women’s suffrage movement took place. So when you realize that only a few of the 50 statues located in and around the 843 acres that make up New York’s Central Park are female, it seems like a mind-boggling oversight.

Aside from a few angels, dancing maidens and a witch, the only women represented in the park are Mother Goose, Juliet and Alice in Wonderland—none of whom are (A) representative of real women or (B) conceived by a female authors.

By contrast, men featured in the park include Christopher Columbus, William Shakespeare, Ludwig van Beethoven, Alexander Hamilton and other (mostly white) historic heroes cast in shining bronze or marble. There are even statues of the lesser-known figures such as Polish King Władysław II Jagiełło, Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen and Cuban national hero José Martí. But not even a handprint of Amelia Earhart.

“Central Park is visited by 40 million people every year,” says Coline Jenkins, the great-great-granddaughter of suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton and president of the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Foundation. “This is a quintessential public forum, but where are the women’s voices?”

To address the glaring omission, Jenkins and other advocates have begun rolling out The Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Statue Fund, which would erect statues of the two women and place them in the park. Supporters include pioneering female icons such as Gloria Steinem, Diane Keaton and Lilly Ledbetter, and the fund’s website and social media campaign will launch in late September. 

It’s true that most of the statues in Central Park have been donated by individuals or organizations, ostensibly with little insight into the overall gender or racial diversity of the monuments, but even that should not excuse a centuries-old injustice happening in a top tourist destination. 

And sure, Central Park Reservoir was renamed a decade ago in honor of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Gertrude Stein has a statue in Bryant Park, and Eleanor Roosevelt can be found leaning pensively against a rock on Riverside Drive. But this is arguably the nation’s most famous and important urban park. If anything, young girls should have the opportunity to look up to and pose for photos with inspiring, real-life women whenever they visit.

“One can say that the park has a perfect constellation of statues,” says Jenkins. “But there is a flaw in thinking if you believe it is OK to have a public space absent of women’s voices. Women should be represented and standing shoulder to shoulder with men.”

Unsurprisingly, Central Park isn’t the only National Historic Landmark that has failed to memorialize the contributions of historical women. Up until 1996, the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol didn’t feature a single female in its wide collection of statues until Jenkins and others demanded the busts of three suffragists be brought up from the Capitol crypt. It took decades of campaigning to make it happen, and authorities only conceded in honor of the 75th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

“We have to think of the statements we are making as a country,” says Jenkins.