Central Park Honors Women’s Suffrage — And Its Complicated History

Meredith Bergmann’s model for her statue of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to be installed in Central Park in 2020. | Photo Glenn Castellano/ New-York Historical Society

BY SYDNEY PEREIRAMeredith Bergmann, a sculptor for more than 40 years, has been selected as the artist who will create the first Central Park statues representing non-fictional women. Last year, the city’s Parks Department announced plans for a monument honoring women’s suffrage movement leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and the design Bergmann presented in winning the commission depicts the two working alongside one another.

“I finally decided that it was really the relationship between these two women and how intensively they worked as one unit for many years,” Bergmann said. “It was inspiring and admirable to think of them working in this way.”

A lengthy scroll — expected to spill some 22 feet down to an old-fashioned ballot box — will pay homage to and be inscribed with quotes from other women who were a part of the fight for women’s rights. Lucretia Mott, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Sojourner Truth, Lucy Stone, Ida B. Wells, Anna Howard Shaw, and Alice Paul are among the women who will be recognized as representative of the women’s rights movement of which Stanton and Anthony — who both died before the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote — have become the most widely known symbols.

“They didn’t live to see it,” Bergmann said. “That’s also why the scroll is necessary.”

Mott, Gage, Truth, Stone, and Shaw also died before women’s suffrage became a reality.

Roughly 90 percent of the city’s public monuments depict men, and, until now, Central Park honored no real women figures, according to the Daily News.

Bergmann’s work will be installed in 2020, the centennial of the 19th Amendment, on the Literary Walk of the Mall in Central Park. The Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Woman Suffrage Movement Monument is being funded with $500,000 from a New York Life Insurance Company Challenge Grant, $100,000 from Borough President Gale Brewer, and $35,000 from City Councilmember Helen Rosenthal, who is co-chair of the Council’s Women’s Caucus and chair of the Committee on Women.

The other statues on the Literary Walk, said Bergmann, are of men “imagining or dreaming or being struck by inspiration.”

“They’re kind of staring at the sky or deep in thought,” she said. “But they’re not working. They’re not actually scribbling away, and they’re not working with someone else. I really wanted to make the point that this kind of tremendous, persistent, long-term work is not something one person does by themselves.”

Bergmann likened the statue of Stanton and Anthony working side by side — writing at a desk while talking — to a modern tableau of women changing the world while sitting at a kitchen table with a laptop.

But the statue doesn’t come without controversy. Bergmann acknowledged the likelihood of criticism because of Stanton’s and Anthony’s complicated history with race. Though the women were abolitionists, the period following the Civil War sparked animosity between the fights for black men’s rights and for women’s rights and the frustrations voiced by women told to wait often betrayed unfortunate racial attitudes.

As Elaine Weiss, the author of “The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote,” told Slate, Stanton and Anthony were awakened to the idea of women’s rights in their fight to abolish slavery. Many of their fellow abolitionists, Weiss said, were “fine with black men getting their rights, but they’re not so sure they want their mothers and sisters and daughters to have these rights, so this leads to a bit of a friction.”

After the Civil War, the hope of women’s rights leaders was for universal suffrage, but that idea was shut down by the political imperative of securing the rights of black men to vote, particularly in the previously rebellious Southern states. The 19th Amendment — when it finally was adopted — triumphed without ratification by many Southern states, where white leaders feared enfranchising both black and white women.

As Weiss explained to Slate, “At this point in 1920 the Southern states had pretty much figured out how to disenfranchise black men” — despite the 15th Amendment adopted in 1870. “There are literacy tests and physical intimidation and violence and lynching to make sure black men don’t vote,” Weiss said. “But they are afraid it will look unseemly if they try to attack black women in the same way and so they are very, very nervous about allowing black women to vote.”

In the immediate post-Civil War years, some fellow abolitionists told Stanton and Anthony that it was not the “woman’s hour,” but rather the “Negro’s hour.”

“They were extraordinarily bitter about that and very, very frustrated because they had already been working for decades,” Bergmann said. “That doesn’t excuse their attitudes. The attitudes were there. There were class attitudes and ethnic attitudes.”

She added, “They thought that educated, wealthy white women should vote.”

Meredith Bergmann discusses her sculpture design at the New-York Historical Society. | Photo by Melissa Mars/ melssphotography.com

At an 1869 convention, Stanton drew on classist, racist, and xenophobic arguments against immigrants and former slaves, saying, “Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung, who do not know the difference between a monarchy and a republic, who cannot read the Declaration of Independence or Webster’s spelling book, making laws” for women’s suffrage leaders.

The split between the fights for black men’s suffrage and for women’s suffrage later resulted in the key suffrage organizations ignoring the fight for suffrage for women of color. As Lisa Tetrault, a history professor at Carnegie Mellon University, explained to History.com, black and Latina women “say basically, ‘Help us, we still can’t vote,’” but women’s suffrage organizations responded, “‘That’s a race question, it doesn’t concern us.’”

Prior to the 15th Amendment’s adoption, it was Anthony and fellow women’s suffrage leader Lucy Stone who proposed merging the American Anti-Slavery Society and the women’s rights movement in pushing for universal suffrage at a January 1866 meeting. Their bid was blocked by Wendell Phillips, another abolitionist, according to Ellen Carol DuBois’s 1978 book “Feminism and Suffrage.”

But, amidst this division, Anthony infamously said, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.”

Given this history, Bergmann said, she hopes the scroll focuses recognition on the contributions of women of color, such as Ida B. Wells and Sojourner Truth, in advancing women’s rights.

“I’m hoping that the presence of black, Latina, and white women who were all part of the movement on the scroll will mitigate the prejudices of Stanton and Anthony,” she said. “And they weren’t unusual prejudices. They were widespread. They were common.”

“It’s unfortunate that these two women did not transcend those prejudices,” Bergmann added. “These things should be brought to light for sure.”

Bergmann, who sculpted the Boston Women’s Memorial in 2003, explained that the focus of the Stanton and Anthony sculpture for Central Park is on the significant work they did accomplish for women’s rights and to provide hope and inspiration for passersby.

“I know that they did a great thing for justice and all people,” she said.

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