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Why Are There So Few Monuments That Successfully Depict Women?

It so happens that there is a new, full-size statue of Woolf in the works intended for a spot along the Thames in Richmond, London, near where the author lived and worked, in which she will be depicted sitting on a bench, as though resting after one of her walks, an activity she fondly described in her 1927 essay “Street Haunting.” The sculpture — more straightforward, fully clothed, striving for realism — is startling only for one reason: Woolf’s likeness is gently smiling. (One might, at a dozen paces, mistake her for Mary Poppins.) In any event, in Woolf’s appearance there is something to be glad about, as there is in last summer’s arrival of the first nonfictional female figures to ever reside in New York’s Central Park: a statue of the pioneering suffragists Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton collaborating at a table — who joined Mother Goose, Alice in Wonderland, 23 statues of respected men and Balto the dog.

THESE NEW STATUES are also arriving in the midst of a larger and significant global reckoning about historical authority and representation. It felt like a turning point last summer when, in Bristol, England, a statue of the 17th-century slaver Edward Colston was tossed in the harbor and temporarily replaced by Marc Quinn’s statue of the Black Lives Matter protester Jen Reid, her fist raised triumphantly in the air. The same month, the poet Caroline Randall Williams published her searing essay “You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument,” which begins, “I have rape-colored skin.” In November, Simone Leigh’s iconic “Brick House” was installed on the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia (another edition is also on display on the High Line in New York), a 16-foot cast-bronze sculpture featuring a Black woman’s head atop a large, encompassing base — an especially eloquent piece in a year in which women of color have figured prominently in progressive politics. As a legal battle continues over the future of a prominent 12-ton statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Va., the former capital of the Confederacy, the site has become a peaceful daytime gathering place, “activated,” as the artist Catherine Opie recently put it for this magazine, with new meaning. Artists projected images of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd on it; activists painted names of other victims of police violence on its base. Such statues are compelling onlookers to consider what is essential history, to reconsider one’s position within the arc of the moral universe.

Last summer, while I was visiting a friend in Bronzeville, a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, we decided to take a walk together, passing by Margot McMahon’s sculpture of the poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Installed in 2018, it is the first outdoor portrait sculpture of a Black woman in the city. As we chatted, my 4-year-old daughter examined the steppingstones inscribed with Brooks’s words, quotations from her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1949 book, “Annie Allen,” before stopping to scrutinize her bespectacled face. “Who is Gwendolyn Brooks?” she wanted to know. “A great poet,” we told her. “An important woman.”

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