This summer I made the move from Berkeley, California to Washington, D.C. to pursue an internship in the heart of politics. The first few weeks were a blur of trying to orient myself to my unknown surroundings and find my place in a brand new city. I would wander the streets asking myself “Have I already gone through this roundabout with a statue of a white man riding his horse triumphantly or was that a different one?” It felt unlearnable and overwhelming. Yet here I am, over two months later, leaving feeling as though I mastered my way on the Metro and could point any tourist in the direction of the White House without a second thought. I learned more than I can truly recall from this city but one of the gleaming things that stands out to me is how history is overtly masculinized here.
“Every roundabout, every park, every empty plot of land I passed seemed to have a memorial to another man.”
The Thomas Jefferson Memorial. Abraham Lincoln Memorial. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. Albert Einstein Memorial. Every roundabout, every park, every empty plot of land I passed seemed to have a memorial to another man. Some ride horses, some stand tall, some lean in groups alongside other men. Even from my window, I could spot one every morning when I looked out. When I went on a general tour of the nation’s Capitol Building, the main rooms are filled with statues of men dedicated to each of the fifty states. In the most central room, the only statue with a woman was that of three white suffragists: Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony. While a beautiful work of art, the three women sharing one block of rock seemed disproportionate compared to the room literally lined with men standing tall above us. Furthermore, making these women the epitome of female political representation in our nation’s capitol building largely overlooks their problematic role as active perpetrators of white supremacy during their time. The men and women we choose to memorialize in the Capitol Building should be a greater reflection of the nation’s evolving morals and standards of character. Our tour guide assured us a statue of Rosa Parks was moving in soon.
“Several white men and women have been memorialized for doing significantly less.”
History is written through the stories of who we choose to remember and how we choose to remember them. Erecting these grandeur, elaborate memorials and statues of these men quite literally cements their place in history for as long as those memorials stand tall. Tourists continue to go to DC to marvel at these monuments and reflect on these men’s positions in history long after they are gone. While many of them are undeniably important figures to the development of this nation, it is clear women have been left out of the greater picture. In retrospect, there was a complete lack of statues in honor of women who led the fights for abolition, workplace rights, indigenous rights, or civil rights. Trailblazers such as Ida B. Wells, Clara Barton, and Sojourner Truth were well-known advocates in various fields who are not represented in DC’s plethora of statues. The city reflects a greater lack of monumental diversity present in the United States. In a 2011 report, of the estimated 5,193 public statues depicting historic figures throughout the United States, only 394 of these monuments are of women. Moreover, on the rare occasion a monument is dedicated to a woman, it is even less frequently a woman of color. It is clear this country blatantly refuses to acknowledge, through physical representation, the historical efforts and successes of Black and Brown women to improve the lives of American citizens. Several white men and women have been memorialized for doing significantly less.
Some of the greatest moments of progress in our history become male-centered in the way we discuss them when it was not solely men doing the physical and emotional labor to produce the outcome. When only men are receiving physical representations of their contributions to history, the narrative becomes only men contributed to history. Women too often become a footnote in the complex history of this nation. Young girls visiting the nation’s capitol take notice of the lack of representation. They look around and at every corner a man has left his mark on history. What message is being sent to women when exclusively men are depicted as history makers? For me, it is yet another reminder that no matter the historical significance of a contribution a woman makes in this country, it is ultimately men who receive the vast majority of praise as changemakers. Men are memorialized as the shining figureheads of movements and history remembers them as such. The memorials visually emphasize the political power men in this country hold over women. This is only reinforced by the gender and racial disparities found in the makeup of the federal government residing in DC.
As a young woman trying to find her way in DC, it was clear to me this city largely has created room to memorialize men in American history. It has made little effort to show otherwise. Giving the direction to “turn left at the statue of the white dude riding the horse” becomes of little use when a city is littered with them.