Women’s Rights Pioneers: A New Addition to Central Park’s Landscape

Photo by Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument by Meredith Bergmann ©️2020 Monumental Women

The Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument, which consists of bronze figures of Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, is the first monument in Central Park to depict actual women. The monument, sponsored and funded by the organization Monumental Women, commemorates the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. It’s part of the organization’s efforts to “break the bronze ceiling” by advocating for more commemoration of women in public spaces and promoting women’s history.

The model for the new monument, as sculpted by Meredith Bergmann

Model for the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument, sculpted by Meredith Bergmann. The artist depicts the three women as activists at work: Sojourner Truth speaking, Susan B. Anthony organizing, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton writing. Photo courtesy of Monumental Women

The new monument arrives at a critical time, as citizens and municipalities are reexamining the role and meaning of public commemorative monuments. This reckoning has called attention to the fact that many of the country’s monuments have complex histories, and they often reflect specific agendas that are not immediately apparent. It’s also revealed how monuments are never static: The ideas they represent can be investigated and questioned. The Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument is a major addition to the Park and to the City’s collection of monuments. To understand its significance and how it ended up in Central Park, it’s helpful to consider the broader history of monuments in the Park.

Commemorative monuments and Central Park

While many of the monuments in Central Park may look at home—and have been in the Park for a long time—they were not originally envisioned as part of its design. The Park’s designers, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, did not include monuments because they conflicted with the purpose of the Park in a couple of fundamental ways.

The Park was created to provide an escape from the City and an experience of the countryside, which its designers and administers ardently believed was essential to improving the quality of life for urban dwellers. The Park’s cohesive design created opportunities for gazing over the broad sweep of an open meadow, wandering around in the woods, taking a boat ride across a glassy lake, and many more rural experiences. To create a true sense of escape, the designers aimed to avoid reminders of urban life and limit urban activities such as team sports or military parades, which also required large areas of the Park to be used for small numbers of people. Commemorative monuments were also in this category—enjoyed by relatively few and not something that one would typically encounter on a country stroll.

A photo from the late 19th century of Central Park showing a couple on a bench on the banks of a body of water.

The designers of Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, sought to create an experience of nature and landscape that was devoid of reminders of urban life.

In addition to being inconsistent with the Park as an experience, monuments contradicted the ideal of the Park as a democratic space. Elevating one person or group above others (literally and figuratively) was inconsistent with the idea that the Park was intended for everyone, which Olmsted and Vaux emphasized in every aspect of how they designed and promoted the Park. One of the most notable examples was their naming of Park entrances. They rejected a plan to name the entrances for prominent individuals, in favor of using them to honor and welcome the different professions and people of the City: women, children, engineers, artists, farmers, and others.

The gate in winter, with numerous pedicabs and parkgoers in the background

The Women’s Gate is located at West 72nd Street. In considering how to include monuments in the Park, Olmsted and Vaux recommended that related monuments be installed at the named gates, but most proposals for monuments did not correspond to the gate designations.

The monuments that were eventually added to the Park were a product of competing ideas about its purpose and its role as a civic space. Following the Civil War, a growing interest in commemorative statues resulted in numerous proposals to add them to the Park. In response to these pressures, the Park’s administrators established rules about accepting monuments and where they could go—policies that were necessary, they believed, to prevent the Park’s landscapes from becoming completely overwhelmed.

Examining the history of monuments in Central Park illuminates what is only now beginning to be fully understood by many New Yorkers—that most historic civic monuments did not originate from official, City-led efforts, nor were they decided upon through consensus, even if they were to live in a public space. By looking at the origins of some of the existing monuments near the location for the new monument, we see how various groups proposed monuments for different reasons, but they were united by a desire to assert themselves in a prominent public setting.

Some of the earliest monuments in Central Park were proposed by groups of European immigrants who sought to see themselves represented in the City’s premier public space—a symbol of their inclusion in American public life. It’s a result of the efforts of prominent New Yorkers of Scottish descent that Literary Walk features statues of two Scottish writers, Sir Walter Scott (dedicated 1872) and Robert Burns (dedicated 1880). The monument to William Shakespeare (dedicated 1872), one of the few figures that has truly withstood the test of time, was sponsored by a group of actors, to celebrate the Bard’s 300th birthday. Another neighboring statue depicts the writer Fitz Greene Halleck, largely unheard of now, but quite famous in his day. Sponsored by the publisher and fellow poet William Cullen Bryant, the monument to Halleck was the first in Central Park to commemorate an American.

The fact that these monuments made it into the Park, amongst many others vying for a place in the City’s most important public space, is a longer story. But it suggests that these sponsoring groups, members of the City’s elite or just beginning to gain influence, had some amount of power that enabled them to successfully advocate for and fund their cause. That these statues all commemorate men reflects the prevailing social order of the period when they were conceived, during the heyday for commemorative monuments, roughly 1870–1920.

A contemporary engraving depicting the unveiling of the Halleck memorial.

The writer Fitz Greene Halleck was so famous in his day that the unveiling of his monument in 1877 was attended by thousands of people, including then-president Rutherford B. Hayes. Collection of the New York Public Library

By the 1930s, interest in commemorative monuments had waned, and new types of statues were added to the Park. Examples include Alice in Wonderland, a sculpture that children could play on and a memorial to the sponsor's wife; and the Burnett Memorial Fountain, honoring children’s book author Frances Hodgson Burnett. Both honor women in Central Park, albeit in non-traditional monumental forms. A monument to the Cuban revolutionary and writer, José Martí, sculpted by Anna Hyatt Huntington, was the last commemorative monument installed in the Park. Beginning in the 1960s, concerns about the Park’s deteriorating condition and a growing movement to recognize and protect its historic and cultural value resulted in increased vigilance among defenders of its historic purpose and design. This culminated in the City designating the Park as a scenic landmark in 1974, formalizing the process for additions and changes to the Park.

The Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument in Central Park

Many have wondered about the addition of the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument given the Park’s landmark status and a general presumption against adding new structures and features. After the City agreed that it was important to commemorate the women’s suffrage movement, it also agreed to contemplate introducing a monument in Central Park for the first time since the Park was designated a landmark. That decision was made to acknowledge the importance of representing women—who make up over half of the population—in New York’s flagship park.

The Conservancy's responsibility for monuments—as part of our role as steward of Central Park—includes caring for them and all artworks in the Park’s collection. In the case of the new monument, the Conservancy was primarily involved in helping to identify a location that would be appropriate for the monument and the Park. This involved carefully considering the historic policies informing the placement of monuments in the Park, and the relationship between monuments and the original purpose and design of the Park. After much analysis and discussion, the City and the Conservancy identified a suitable spot on the Mall, which was designated in 1873 as the primary spot for monuments, across from the statue of Fitz Greene Halleck.

Colorized postcard from the turn of the century looking down the length of the Mall

In the 1870s, Park administrators identified the Mall as the most appropriate space for monuments because of its more formal design. Collection of the New York Public Library

The importance of commemorating women’s suffrage and including women among the historical figures represented in Central Park was undisputed. However, the proposed monument generated a debate over what this representation should look like. This debate unfolded during the standard process for reviewing and approving all new monuments on public property, led by the Public Design Commission, and resulted in several changes to its design. The monument as originally proposed depicted two figures, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the most well-known leaders of the women’s suffrage movement. It also acknowledged other contributors to the movement, including suffragist women of color. In the original design, their names and writings were to be included on a scroll that unfurled from the writing desk at which Anthony and Stanton were seated. Some critics saw this depiction as demeaning, and even racist. To address this and simplify the design, the scroll was taken out. Left with just Stanton and Anthony, however, the depiction was to some a whitewashing of history. After further debate and discussion with the Public Design Commission, Monumental Women redesigned the monument to include Sojourner Truth.

Cleaning and Conserving the Women's Rights Pioneers Monument

A traditional bronze monument was preferred from the beginning, in part to ensure that the monument would not look out of place on the Mall, but this form proved a challenge. The controversy over its design speaks to the limitations of traditional figurative monuments to be inclusive, to fully represent something much larger than the persons depicted—in this case, a decades-long struggle that involved numerous contributors and aimed to benefit over half the population. The founders of the Park recognized these same limitations, which is why they sought to regulate the quantity and placement of monuments in the Park. If they included everyone who wanted to be represented and made up the diverse and populous City, Central Park would have become overwhelmed with monuments. The debate over the design of the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument also speaks to the urgent need to acknowledge the lives and accomplishments of people of color in the public realm and to make voices that have been forgotten, or silenced, heard. It may also be another indication that we need to rethink traditional ideas and forms of monumentality—to reinvent the monument for the 21st century.

In contemplating monuments today, it’s essential to consider the role and meaning of the public spaces in which they exist, and to investigate the relationship between monument and site. The addition of the Women’s Rights Pioneer Monument to Central Park’s eclectic—and certainly male-centric—collection of works of art affirms the presence, contributions, and rights of women in one of the most important and popular public spaces in the world. But it also highlights the uneasy relationship between monuments and Central Park, serving as a reminder that the Park’s purpose intentionally defied notions of monumentality, specifically as they were defined in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Park visitors find shade beneath a tree in the Sheep Meadow with the skyline in the background

Sheep Meadow epitomizes the Park’s purpose as a place as for New Yorkers to come together with the shared goal of relaxation and escape.

Olmsted and Vaux saw Central Park, and specifically the experience of nature, as a great leveler. In one of his many essays about the purpose of the Park, Olmsted described his great pleasure in seeing groups of people with “an evident glee in the prospect of coming together,” and “all classes largely represented with a common purpose.” He marveled at how in the Park (versus in the City) urban dwellers were “not at all intellectual, competitive with none, disposing to jealousy and spiritual or intellectual pride toward none.” Olmsted and Vaux intended the Park as a place where all urban dwellers could come together, despite their differences and worries, and all enjoy nature and being together in beautiful surroundings. This experience would ultimately make them happier and healthier. It’s important to acknowledge that this was a vision and an ideal—one that has not yet been perfectly realized—and that not everyone has always had equal access to the Park. But Olmsted and Vaux, and other Park supporters, certainly saw the Park as a work of art, endowed with what they called a “single noble purpose,” which they defined as providing all urban dwellers with an opportunity to retreat from the City and experience nature. As we begin to rethink what a monument can be, perhaps the Park itself could be considered a monument—to the power of nature to restore our common humanity.

Marie Warsh is the Conservancy's historian.