In parks, government buildings, and the streets of any city, we can often see the familiar sight of a statue made of bronze or marble featuring a victorious hero perched on his trusted warhorse. I remember seeing these monuments as a child, all of which dramatically commemorated the contributions of great men. We rationalize the obvious lack of memorials of consequential women with our knowledge that, historically, men have been the heads of our nations, communities, and households.
However, we have long since moved on from the notion that men are the only capable leaders of society. So, I ask: What is the purpose of statues, busts, and portraits? They commemorate an honor or victory, but almost all indicate exceptionality. They stand as notable monuments to people of particular accomplishment. Their presence asks the viewer for admiration, respect, and emulation. This sense of reverence, embodied in art, is forever embedded upon the eyes of impressionable young boys and girls, from their first teetering walk through the park. Unfortunately, this admiration and respect engendered in our youth is primarily reserved for men. Thus, children are brought up with the idea that leadership and power are primarily a man’s domain.
In an attempt to solve this implicit societal implication, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s great-great-granddaughter, Coline Jenkins, launched the Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony State Fund. In New York City’s Central Park, there are 22 statues that honor men and a few that honor women. However, the women depicted are Alice in Wonderland, Romeo’s Juliet, and Mother Goose. There is not one single statue of a real, nonfictional woman in all of Central Park, while there have been countless women in our nation’s history who deserve recognition alongside their male counterparts.
Today, we are still confronted with the reality that women are largely absent from the forefront of politics, science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and executive positions in general. There are infinite reasons for this unfortunate imbalance, such as the media’s negative and objectifying portrayal of women, the lack of recognition for historical female leaders, and a lack of emphasis on women’s history in our nation’s classrooms and wider culture. There is an unmistakable correlation between the lack of female symbols of leadership in our society (i.e. statues, monuments, memorials) and the lack of female representation in leadership positions. In front of us is a tremendous opportunity to address this broader issue right here, right now.
UChicago is not immune to our society’s broader recognition lag of influential women. It takes only one meal in Hutchinson Commons to become aware of the gender disparity in our commemorative public art. There are countless statues, busts, and tablets of honorable individuals who have contributed to the University through their great discoveries, leadership, and patronage, but close to none of them are women. In fact, I have only seen three portraits of women on campus: Hanna Holborn Gray, president of the University; Marion Talbot, dean of Women and professor in Department of Household Administration, Ida Noyes, LaVerne Noyes’s wife; and one tablet of Alice Freeman Palmer, dean of Women, located above the fireplace in Hutchinson Commons compared to the hundreds of depictions of influential men around campus.
Of course, it is impossible to change the course of history or he number of female University Presidents that we have had (one); however, it is not impossible to embark on a mission to commemorate women who have made significant contributions to UChicago’s history.
At the University, we need a way to bring to life the accomplishments and contributions of influential women who have either been faculty or alumni of the University, and who have contributed greatly to academic growth and discovery throughout their lifetimes. Not only would increasing the number of female monuments address a broader national problem by setting a precedent for other universities, but it would also work to encourage and empower women on our own campus.
The scarcity of instances in which women are honored has not been due to the lack of influential female faculty members or alumni who have contributed greatly to “discovery, education, and society” throughout their lifetimes. Instead, this is yet another instance in which we, as a society, have been numbed to the exclusive sight of men in power without questioning the reasons behind this norm. Whether it is the massive sculpture of Walt Whitman in Harper Memorial Library, the Aleko Konstantinov bust on the second floor of the Regenstein Library, or the Charles Darwin statue in the Biological Sciences Learning Center, we have become accustomed to seeing men as the only influential characters in our University’s history without ever considering what may be missing from the wider artistic palate of our campus.
We have to understand that this disproportionality is not an immutable fact of our current world—rather a social construct that can easily be modified by changing the physical perception of leadership, through the implementation of projects such as these. It all starts by readjusting our eyes, and becoming accustomed to seeing powerful women honored on our campuses, in our cities, and in our nation.
Asya Akça is a first -year in the College majoring in political science.