Putting Women in the Public Square: StatueFest Shifts the Narrative

Real-life historic women still remain in the shadows when it comes to public representation. StatueFest: Put A Woman On A Pedestal aims to use the theater to change that.

“Statuesque” is a word used to describe a tall and shapely woman, according to Merriam-Webster, and it is a distinctly gendered word. With rare exceptions, only women need apply.

The root word, “statue,” is also highly gendered, although in a diametrically different direction. With rare exceptions, only men are the chosen ones.

In public squares, statues lift up men (white, straight men at that) of all sizes and shapes, with their horses and their guns, in uniforms and in waistcoats, holding decrees, posed for action, standing with satisfaction. Women are missing-in-action, no matter how much they have contributed to society or how statuesque they are or are not.

To shift the narrative, three other women playwrights and I created StatueFest — evenings of monologue plays about statue-worthy women, putting that mildly ironic gender twist in the name.

The artistic instigators — Janis Astor del Valle, Cheryl Davis, Deborah Savadge and I formed the team — launched StatueFest with four free livestreaming slates of monologues on Zoom. The monologues are written by 25 diverse women playwrights, each of whom answered a call to “Put A Woman On A Pedestal” by using their words alone.

The selections underscore women’s roles in securing civil rights, women’s rights and human rights, advancing progressive public policy, opening doors, crashing gender barriers, promulgating new concepts in education, the arts, social service and community organizing. They are straight and queer; Black, Latina, Asian, Indigenous and white; visionary and feet-on-the ground; fierce and committed. They form an enormous palette of women’s achievements, and are only the beginning.

The StatueFest monologues, presented by leading actors, bring to life a wide spectrum of bold and imaginative women who should be represented in the public squares and parks.

These stories of statue-worthy women have a lot to tell us about how our history is reconfigured and embedded in the landscape. By omission and erasure, existing monuments are complicit in valorizing one gender and one race (white), while marginalizing and eliminating women, people of color, individuals of varying ethnicities and intersectional identities, and those with a range of contributions and societal perspectives.

Even today, of 150 statues in New York City, less than five percent are representations of real women — that means seven in total (not even one per million residents). Central Park has 23 statues that honor men but got its first pedestal holding up women’s achievements in 2020 when the Monumental Women Statue Fund unveiled a sculptural representation of the women’s suffrage movements with renderings of Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton on a single platform

Sojourner Truth became only the second woman of color to be memorialized on a statue in New York City — there is one of Harriet Tubman on a traffic island on 122nd Street in Harlem, while one of former Congressional Representative Shirley Chisholm is in the works in Brooklyn. An oversized bust of tennis star Althea Gibson was added outside the Arthur Ashe Stadium on the U.S. Open grounds in 2019–22 years after the stadium was built, although Gibson preceded Ashe in breaking racial barriers in tennis and winning major tournaments.

The handful of other statues of women in New York City portray Eleanor Roosevelt (Riverside Park), Joan of Arc (near Riverside Park), Gertrude Stein (Bryant Park), Golda Meir (bust, midtown Manhattan), and, newly installed, Ruth Bader Ginsburg at City Point in downtown Brooklyn (viewable by reservation). There are representations of a few fictional females, too — Fearless Girl (Wall Street area), Alice in Wonderland (Central Park), the Statue of Liberty, and women of mythological or angelic natures. (While the beloved lions at the New York Public Library are now named Patience and Fortitude, both, it seems, are male.) Asian, Latina and indigenous women are missing altogether.

The reformation of public monuments, something which has finally gained traction in the last year, is largely directed to removing statues of racists. The statue of J. Marion Sims, the ‘father of gynecology’ who used enslaved women as experimental subjects, was removed from Central Park, while Confederate monuments are being challenged everywhere.

But as the spaces are cleared, women artists are voicing the need for new works that honor women. The list of possibles is long, and the discussion has been ongoing for a long time, too. The StatueFest theatrical monologues themselves grew out of an earlier project, Ten x Ten, launched in 2019 by Gail Kriegel, Artistic Director of the East Broadway Theater Project, and based on women mentioned as deserving of statues in a 2018 New York Times article.

For StatueFest, writers and others were asked to submit their own ideas for statue-worthy women in New York State. The initiating artists set guidelines: as with real statues, the woman could no longer be alive and should have made contributions to society worthy of recognition; and we expressed a special interest in BIPOC (including Latinx) and otherwise marginalized candidates.

Dozens of submissions arrived — ranging from well-known candidates for statues, to those known in small circles, and others who had fallen into an historical vacuum. Selected writers were asked to write a short monologue, highlighting a dramatic moment in the lives of the statue-worthy women.

To prompt active stories, the initiating artists offered these suggestions: “Put your character in a situation of action rather than reflection. You might place her in the midst of her most difficult decision or choice, or in the midst of her most harrowing moment. You might ask your character to answer one of these questions: (1) What was your most hard-fought victory? (2) What made you angry? (3) Why should you be memorialized with a statue?”

Ashley Chui as Mabel Ping Hua Lee

From the writings that followed, StatueFest emerged.

Who deserves a statue?

Here’s who the StatueFest writers proposed:

Stella Adler, theater luminary and teacher, by D. Lee Miller; Bea Arthur, comedian, actor and women’s rights activist, by Allison Fradkin; Alice Austen, pioneering photographer, by Fengar Gael;

Luisa Capetillo, community activist, by Magdalena Gomez; Henrietta Vinton Davis, star performer and Pan-African leader, by Carolyn Gage; Maria Irene Fornes, playwright and theater visionary, by Lorca Peress; Ruth Bader Ginsburg, women’s rights lawyer, by Cindy Cooper;

Zora Neale Hurston, writer and anthropologist, by Cheryl L. Davis; Marsha P. Johnson, LGBTQIA and Stonewall-uprising activist, by Nicole Ansari; Yuri Kochiyama, civil rights leader, by Christine Toy Johnson; Mabel Ping Hua Lee, youth suffragist, by Lucy Wang;

Eva Le Gallienne, actor and off-Broadway founder, by Glenda Frank; Barbara McClintock, Nobel-winning scientist, by Judith Pratt; Pauli Murray, labor and civil rights leader, by Michael angel Johnson; Antonia Pantoja, educator and founder of ASPIRA youth development program, by Janis Astor del Valle;

Renee’ Flemings as Augusta Savage

Dorothy Parker, writer and wit, by Bev Thompson; Frances Perkins, New Deal architect and first woman Cabinet member, by Deborah Savadge; Augusta Savage, sculptor, by Renee’ Flemings; Clara Leimlich Shavelson, organizer for workers, by Pauline David-Sax;

Emma Stebbins, sculptor of Bethesda Fountain, by Heather Jeanne Violanti; Maria Tallchief, prima ballerina, by Laura Shamas; Lillian Wald, social worker and founder of programs for economically distressed, by Elisabeth Speckman;

Edith Wharton, writer and designer, by Martha Patterson; Mary Lou Williams, pianist and composer, by Martine Sainvil; Triangle Shirtwaist Women by Barbara Kahn.

Among them are amazing movers and shakers: the person who designed the New Deal (Frances Perkins); sculpted ‘Angels in the Water’ in Central Park (Emma Stebbins); created a new language for music (Mary Lou Williams); developed educational programs for Latino youth (Antonia Pantoja).

Each evening concludes with a final presentation, Anonymous, building upon the observation of Virginia Woolf that writings and paintings signed ‘Anonymous’ are, in fact, by a woman who is not credited. This collage piece weaves together phrases from each writer about an Anonymous woman they wish to acknowledge — offerings range from a woman who held a patient’s hand during surgery to a woman who started a podcast to honor her murdered sister.

The StatueFest approach can work for schools, community groups, theaters and women’s rights activists who are interested in making women equally represented in the public realm.

StatueFest presented four live streaming events to Put A Woman On A Pedestal. For other info, contact: StatueFest2021@gmail.com.

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Cyn Cooper

Cyn Cooper is a playwright, journalist, author. She often addresses justice, gender and human rights. cyncooperwriter.net @cyncooperwrtr