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After months of fiery public debate, the New York City Public Design Commission has accepted artist Meredith Bergmann’s proposal for a Central Park monument to women’s suffrage. A panel for the commission approved the monument in a meeting on Monday, October 21. Following criticism over the historical accuracy of Bergmann’s previous designs, the bronze and granite statue was revised again to reflect differences of opinion between abolitionist Sojourner Truth and her fellow suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
Six of nine members of the Design Commission’s panel of judges voted in favor of the statue. The remaining three — artists Hank Willis Thomas and Mary A. Valverde, and architect Laurie Hawkinson — abstained. In the commission’s last hearing on the sculpture on September 16, which ended without a vote, Willis Thomas proposed erecting individual statues of each of the women represented in Bergmann’s design. Valverde asked the sculptor to consult again with historians on how to make the design more “historically accurate” and how to help it display “diverse sensibility.”
Bergmann’s original proposal for the monument came under fire in January of this year for depicting only white suffragists (Anthony and Stanton,) while Truth was featured in name only, listed among 22 suffragists inscribed on a long scroll that unfolds from Stanton’s desk. Bergmann then came back with a new design in March featuring Truth working with the other two suffragists at Stanton’s home. The redesigned monument was then criticized for lack of historical accuracy given the fact that Stanton and Anthony have been accused of holding racist views against Black Americans.
After consulting again with historians, Bergmann has made new changes to the sculpture that finally appeased the majority of the commission’s panel. Renderings of the new design show a different, more determined gesture of Truth’s left hand (it rested on the table in the last design) to reflect a debate between her and Stanton. “I resculpted Sojourner Truth’s left hand to bring it into the conversation,” Bergmann writes in her latest proposal. “I also moved the table closer to Sojourner Truth and brought Stanton’s hand out to the edge of the table to eliminate Stanton’s apparent ownership of the table, since possession of the table might be regarded as a marker of power.” Bergmann also changed Stanton’s expression to “one of greater attention and serious listening.”
“I got a lot of input from many different sources on this project, much of it conflicting, much of it contentious,” Bergmann said at a press conference following the vote on Monday. “I am confident now that the monument will work.”
One of the historians with whom Bergmann consulted was Margaret Washington, a professor of History and American Studies at Cornell University and author of Sojourner Truth’s America (2011). “You have indeed rendered Sojourner more actively engaged with Stanton in the statue,” Washington wrote Bergmann in a letter that was brought to the commission. “As I said previously, it was both disempowering and ahistorical to have Sojourner using only one hand to express herself […] The engaged hands, the open mouth speak volumes,” she added.
“With this statue we are finally breaking the bronze ceiling,” said Pam Elam, president of Monumental Women, the nonprofit that proposed the monument and raised $1.5 million to fund it, in a statement on Monday. “We are pleased to have broken through every city bureaucratic barrier to make this happen.”
Todd Fine, president of the Washington Street Advocacy Group, argues that the “barriers” that Elam complained about were justified. “The delay was worth it, and the City needs to continue to insist that historians are involved in decisions surrounding this wave of new ‘representational monuments,’” he wrote to Hyperallergic in an email. A vocal critic of the design’s approval process, Fine has also accused Monumental Women of attempting to hide its proposals from the general public. “Input from historians was critical to improving the design after it was finally made public,” he wrote.
The statue is scheduled to be unveiled on August 26, 2020, on the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, which gave some women the right to vote. The statue will be installed at Central Park’s Literary Walk, near 70th Street.