Central Park suffrage monument vote pushed back, jeopardizing August unveiling

The monument of Elizabeth Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth would be the first statue of real women in Central Park.
The monument of Elizabeth Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth would be the first statue of real women in Central Park. Photo Credit: NYPD

The city’s Public Design Commission has pushed back its vote on a women’s suffrage monument proposed for Central Park, despite concerns that a delay could jeopardize plans to unveil it on a historic anniversary next August.

Monumental Women — the nonprofit working to bring the statue of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sojourner Truth to the park — hopes to unveil it during a ceremony on Aug. 26, 2020 — the centennial of the day the 19th Amendment went into effect.

The group has already secured the Parks Department’s approval for the monument but still needs a majority vote from the design commission to move forward.

At a public hearing on Monday, however, the commission voted unanimously to table its vote, “with an intent to move forward as quickly as possible,” its president Signe Nielsen said. She cited the need for input from historians as well as letters from local community boards in support of an updated rendering of the statue.  

The proposed monument, which originally included just Stanton and Anthony, was modified to include Truth last month after advocates criticized it for failing to recognize any suffragists of color.

“I do think we cannot have a statue of two white women representing the vote for all women,” activist Gloria Steinem told the New York Times in January.

The current proposal for the statue features Truth sitting with Stanton at a table inside the latter’s home, with Anthony standing behind them carrying “documentation of injustices” in her traveling bag, artist Meredith Bergmann said in a statement.

But the announcement about the updated monument, too, drew criticism. Nearly two dozen scholars, including Harlem Historical Society director Jacob Morris, signed a letter in August claiming a statue showing the three activists working together “could obscure the substantial differences between white and black suffrage activists, and would be misleading.”

However, during testimony prior to the commission’s vote, Washington Street Advocacy Group president Todd Fine read testimony on behalf of Morris, who criticized Monumental Women for keeping renderings of the new statue from the public until Monday’s hearing but didn’t criticize the statue itself. 

The Harlem Historical Society had “no objection to the fundamental features of the design,” Morris wrote.

“For the purposes of civic and societal unity and pride it is understandable that the statue fund would want to represent a ‘kumbaya’ moment of togetherness,” he wrote, adding that Bergmann’s design was “sensitive to the critiques” that had been expressed previously.

A plaque on the pedestal below the statue, Morris argued, should provide “sufficient historical context” regarding the “different objectives” of black and white suffrage activists.

In addition to asking Monumental Women to submit letters of support from the community boards as well as “independent opinions” from historians that speak to the accuracy of the monument, Nielsen also noted the commission had minor “aesthetic concerns” about the statue itself that still need to be addressed. If those issues are resolved within the next month, the commission will put the monument on its consent agenda for approval, she said.

“I am in complete support of the concept and initiative of a statue to monumental women,” Nielsen explained.

“We do not want to delay this any further,” she added. “[But] we do have to point out to members of the public that there have been several changes along the way here not requested specifically by our commission, that has been part of the reason for some of the delay.”

Despite the controversy the proposed statue has stirred, nobody at the meeting raised concerns about the monument’s design.

Approximately 15 other attendees — including Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, several members of Monumental Women and a representative for Rep. Carolyn Maloney — testified in support.

Monumental Women board member Brenda Berkman, a retired FDNY captain who was the sole named class plaintiff in a sex discrimination lawsuit that compelled the FDNY to start hiring female firefighters, said she’d seen how “images of strong historic women can inspire young women to be brave in their own lives.”

“For me, history is both living and important,” she said.

After the commission tabled its vote, Monumental Women board member Namita Luthra said she was confident the group would secure community board support, adding that members were “hoping for a very quick resolution.”

Monumental Women’s president Pam Elam, meanwhile, told amNewYork she wasn’t surprised by the commission’s decision.

“To be totally honest, we expected them to do this. It’s just another delay,” she said.

“[But] we persist,” she added. “And we will not stop until that beautiful statue stands on the mall in Central Park, and all of the millions of people who see it will just honor those women, and hopefully feel energized to complete the journey that they started for full equality for women.”

With Nicole Brown

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