02. 15. 2019

Investigating the gender gap in public sculpture

Line drawings of three classical sculptures of women

There are 25 statues honoring historical figures in New York City’s Central Park. They include a sculpture of a Polish king, a Venezuelan military leader, a Prussian naturalist, and even a sled dog. But not a single one of these statues is in honor of a historical woman.

Landscape Architecture graduate student Sydney Shea is investigating the gender gap found in public sculptures in her ongoing research project The (Un)Named Woman.

“I started by looking generally at the representation of women in public sculptures and memorials,” explained Shea. “I looked at memorials in New York City and San Francisco and found that there is a huge disparity in representation between men and women in public sculptures.” During Shea’s research, she uncovered an article by Caroline Criado-Perez, who had categorized all of the statues in the U.K. into the categories: stand-alone named woman, stand-alone named man, unnamed man, and unnamed woman. Intrigued by the idea, Shea decided to apply the same typologies to the sculptures found at the Minnesota State Capitol.

“I started by only categorizing the publicly accessible statues found on the capitol’s grounds, but there weren’t any named stand-alone women in that area, so I expanded my categorization to include the interior to see if I could find any,” said Shea. What she found were just two plaques in honor of named women. In comparison, there are 11 statues of named men, 12 busts of named men, and 2 plaques honoring named men throughout the state capitol.

Once Shea finished this categorization, she decided to more closely examine what female statues were present around the capitol. “I found that there are eight unnamed female statues representing ideas like youth, agricultural, bounty, and wisdom. I became fascinated by these unnamed women and the archetypes that they represent. These unnamed representations act as stand-ins for ideas or placeholders, never sharing the experience of a named woman that actually lived.”

While unnamed male sculptures do exist, Shea’s research has found that it is much more common for unnamed sculptures to be of the female form. “You find most unnamed men in war memorials, like the unnamed soldier. They tend to be either associated with a war memorial or representing a stereotypical male archetype like courage,” she said.

The diversity of the women represented in these unnamed sculptures is also very limited. “A lot of public sculptures were made in the early 20th century and the Grecian and Roman style popular during that time has never been revisited and updated to better reflect our nation’s makeup or the lives of specific individuals rather than generic ideals of women in robes.”

The lack of representation in public sculptures has not gone unnoticed. New York City plans to add a statue of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to Central Park in 2020. There are also plans to add a statue in honor of Shirley Chisholm to the entrance of Prospect Park. But even with those additions, the total number of historical women depicted in sculptures throughout New York City will only be eight, with just two of those in honor of a woman of color.

Part of the problem is that the demand for public sculptures is not as high as it was during the turn of the century and the type of memorials in demand has changed. “The U.S. went through a period of time where monuments were very prescribed in their design, in high demand, and stamped out at a much faster pace than today,” explained Shea. “They had a plaque that spelled out exactly what the audience member should feel and how they should respond to the sculpture. Now there’s pushback against this type of monument. People want monuments that are more interactive and that can be more widely interpreted as opposed to objects that you can just move past, requiring more debate and design iteration.”

Shea will continue her research this spring and hopes that she and her faculty advisor, Professor Rebecca Krinke (Landscape Architecture), will be able to put together a public installation displaying the results outside of the Minnesota State Capitol.

This article by Amelia Narigon was originally published on the College of Design's Design at Minnesota Blog.