In the last few years—and especially in the last few months—monuments to historical figures and commemorations of historical events have been called sharply into question. The debate over statues of people, almost exclusively white men, who led and fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War has been largely decided in favor of removal. The mayor of Richmond, Virginia (the former Confederate capital) last week finally ordered the removal of all such statues from city property.
The problems with creating memorials to human beings extend beyond statues to the naming of buildings, schools, even counties. In Washington, DC, where the American Humanist Association is headquartered, residents in the Tenleytown neighborhood are asking for a name change for Woodrow Wilson High School, named after a US president who re-segregated the federal workforce, in which African-Americans had been afforded a rare opportunity to earn a comfortable living, and played a large part in segregating the entire city. In the Maryland suburbs outside DC, there’s a movement to change the name of Richard Montgomery High School because its namesake was a slaveholder. (This begs a larger question of what to do about the eponymous county the school sits in, which of course commemorates the same person.) Other acts of removal include a statue of Christopher Columbus pulled down by protestors in Baltimore and statues of slaveholders and traders demolished in London and Bristol in England.
Surprisingly, not all the problems are with existing monuments. New York City recently approved a tribute to women’s rights pioneers, the first monument in Central Park dedicated to real women. (As opposed to fictional; the park already has statues of Alice in Wonderland, Shakespeare’s Juliet, and numerous angels.) Set to be unveiled on August 26, 2020, the statue commemorates Women’s Equality Day—the centennial of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment which gave women the right to vote. The statue’s original design featured Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, early advocates for women’s rights. Unfortunately, both also held and expressed deeply racist views.
Stanton has long been a secular heroine for her stance on religion, in addition to her championing of women’s rights. In her autobiography, Eighty Years and More, she wrote, “My religious superstitions gave place to rational ideas based on scientific facts, and in proportion, as I looked at everything from a new standpoint, I grew more and more happy, day by day.” And she was clear that her criticisms weren’t just of the Christianity with which she was raised. Speaking of all women, she declared that “All religions on the face of the earth degrade her, and so long as woman accepts the position that they assign her, her emancipation is impossible.” Stanton was also the author, along with a committee of other women, of The Woman’s Bible, an analysis of the Christian holy book that challenged the traditional biblical view that women should be subservient to men.
But Stanton is a problematic heroine since she did not extend her belief in the rights of women to all people. Although she had been a staunch abolitionist, once slavery was abolished by the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, she vehemently argued in racist terms against the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments because they didn’t protect women. In a speech at the 1869 convention of the American Equal Rights Association she said,
Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung, who do not know the difference between a monarchy and a republic, who cannot read the Declaration of Independence or Webster’s spelling book, making laws for … Susan B. Anthony. [The Fifteenth Amendment] creates an antagonism everywhere between educated, refined women and the lower orders of men, especially in the South.
Regarding the Central Park monument, critics also pointed out that black suffragettes weren’t represented. The planner’s solution was to add Sojourner Truth, who was both an abolitionist and an important figure in the early days of the fight for the rights of women. Meredith Bergmann, the artist commissioned for the project, is creating a statue that purports to show Truth in active debate with the other two women, as a nod to the problems inherent in the early women’s movement. Is this inclusion enough to mitigate the presence of two importantly imperfect figures? Regarding Stanton, must humanists now disregard her legacy of freethought and secular feminism?
These aren’t always easy questions to answer. But if it’s too much to memorialize flawed people—not to mention traitors, slaveowners, and mass murderers—why do it? Princeton University, for example, recently removed Woodrow Wilson’s name from one of its programs and simply renamed it “The Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.”
Approaching the issue from a different angle, are the debates over monuments and naming a distraction from the imperative to actually solve our real problems? After all, taking down a statue doesn’t end police violence, get a child an adequate education, or end systemic racism. What do you think, readers? Is it time to stop immortalizing human beings in stone and putting them on display for all to see?