Moral Dilemma

Central Park’s first female statue may have racist undertones

A maquette of the sculpture of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, two women best known for their pivotal roles in the women’s suffrage movement. (New York Historical Society)

Last year, New York City’s Parks Department announced plans to build a statue honoring women’s suffrage movement leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The monument, designed by sculptor and human rights activist Meredith Bergmann, will be the first non-fictional female statue in Central ParkIn a city where roughly 90 percent of its public monuments depict men, Bergmann intended for the sculpture to celebrate women and pay homage to those who actively fought for women’s rights, yet since it’s unveiling, the piece has been met with a wave of online controversy over its subject.

In January, the New York Times noted that women’s rights activists and historical scholars were among the first in recent years to call out Anthony and Stanton’s problematic history with race and more specifically, their focus on white women’s suffrage over voting rights for all women. Both figures were prominent abolitionists, but the passing of the 15th Amendment created a huge rift between those who fought for black men’s rights and those who strived for women’s rights. The frustrations voiced by white women like Anthony and Stanton, who were told to “wait their turn” as black men won the right to vote following the Civil War, often conveyed distasteful, racist undertones, according to History.com

In 1866, the two women formed the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) with Frederick Douglass, an organization whose goal was to grant equality and voting rights for both women and African Americans. But after just three years, the AERA disintegrated over debates about whether to support the 15th Amendment. The Villager wrote that at a 1869 convention, Stanton delivered a hateful speech filled with “classist, racist, and xenophobic” remarks against former slaves and immigrants, saying that uneducated and illiterate men should not be making laws for affluent women’s suffrage leaders. 



Bergmann, while aware of Stanton and Anthony’s shortcomings, created the sculpture to recognize their tireless efforts to mobilize an entire country toward acknowledging women as a powerful and resilient demographic. “It’s unfortunate that these two women did not transcend those prejudices,” Bergmann said in an interview with The Villager. “These things should be brought to light for sure.”

The statue will feature a lengthy, 22-foot-long scroll, which will recognize the contributions of African American women, such as Mary Church Terrell, Sojourner Truth, and Ida B. Wells, who helped promote the advancement of all women’s rights. Bergmann told The Villager she hopes the presence of these black, Latina, and white women’s names will “mitigate the [widespread and common] prejudices of Stanton and Anthony.”

The monument will be installed on Central Park’s Literary Walk next year on the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment’s passing.  

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