In a city full of statues and monuments, you might be surprised to learn that only five of these statues are of women. And no, I’m not counting the allegorical statues we have of women representing ideas like liberty and justice; those are nearly countless. But in terms of statues honoring flesh-and-blood women who walked the streets of this city, there are five. That’s it.
Fortunately, with the She Built NYC campaign and Governor Cuomo’s recent announcement to fund a statue for St. Mother Cabrini, the city is taking steps to rectify this lack. But this got me thinking: which NYC women would I like to see commemorated publicly? This is by no means an end-all-be-all list; there are so many underrated NYC women who deserve a statue or some form of public recognition, but for now, these are my top five:
Emily Warren Roebling
Emily Warren Roebling was aware of her significance, but are you? In an 1898 letter to her son, she told him, “I have more brains, common sense, and know-how, generally than any two engineers civil or uncivil that I have ever met, and but for me, the Brooklyn Bridge, would never have had the name Roebling in any way connected to it!”
That’s right: a woman, Emily Roebling, was a major driving force behind the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge. Equipped with a background in mathematics and a mind sharp enough to quickly pick up what she didn’t already know as she went along, Emily Roebling practically took over the role of chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge’s construction when her husband Washington Roebling, who was in charge of the project, became bed-ridden due to caissons disease. While she viewed her role of being “the eyes and ears” of her husband as part of her duty as a good wife, other contemporaries rightly recognized her importance. In fact, when the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, President Chester Arthur had Emily Roebling be the first person to walk across it. Today Emily Roebling shares a dark, hard-to-read plaque on the bridge with her husband, Washington Roebling, and her father-in-law, John. But with all the camera-happy pedestrians and road-raging cyclists jostling for space at the Brooklyn Bridge, how many people have really gotten the chance to stop and fully contemplate Emily Roebling’s significance?
If we can celebrate socialites like Zsa Zsa Gabor and Tinsley Mortimer, then we certainly can put some respect on A’Lelia Walker’s name. A’Lelia Walker was the daughter of Madame CJ Walker, one of the first black millionaires. Although she assisted her mother with the hair care business for some time, Walker really made her name in the 1920s through her patronage of the arts and by throwing some of the best parties Harlem had even seen. When we think of lavish galas and the toast of the town, we typically think of Caroline Astor or the Vanderbilts, but let’s redefine socialites by adding A’Lelia Walker to that list too, because how could we not honor “the joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920s”?
Elizabeth Jennings (Graham)
Long before there was Rosa Parks, there was Elizabeth Jennings. On a Sunday morning in 1854 Jennings and a friend tried to board a segregated streetcar and were swiftly removed. But Jennings had places to be and she wasn’t going to wait around for the “colored car.” Demanding the right to be treated as any respectable woman of that era should, Jennings reboarded the street car she was just thrown off of. Eventually, she had to be forcibly removed by the conductor and a police officer, but that wasn’t the end of the story. As she was from a family that was well-connected to the black middle class leaders of New York, she got them to rally behind her as she filed a lawsuit against the streetcar company, 3rd Ave. Railroad. With future president Chester Arthur as her attorney, Jennings won $250 in damages from 3rd Ave. Railroad. The ruling shook other streetcar companies in the city who also desegregated in order to avoid attracting more lawsuits. Although Jennings didn’t make any further headlines during the remainder of her life, she did end up opening NYC’s first kindergarten for black children. As of right now, the only thing we have to commemorate Jenning’s story is a contextless street sign that renames the section of Park Row between Beekman and Spruce Streets “Elizabeth Jennings Way,” but the city is working on creating a monument for this early civil rights pioneer to be placed near Grand Central Terminal.
Dr. Sara Josephine Baker
She wasn’t NYC’s first female doctor—that title goes to Elizabeth Blackwell—but she was a pioneer in the medical field in her own right. A surprising turn from her genteel Gilded Age upbringing in Poughkeepsie, Baker felt compelled to become a doctor during a time when female doctors were viewed as quacks. After graduating from New York Infirmary Medical College, Baker crushed the civil service exam and was appointed as a medical inspector for the Department of Health. But this was a far from cushy position. Baker was assigned to the slums of Hell’s Kitchen, where scores of people were dying of preventable illnesses every week. Instead of throwing up her hands like many of the city’s other public health officials of the day, she made it her mission to make some change by curbing the infant mortality rate. If I try to list all policies she implemented to do this, I may as well write a book, but this Neatorama article comes pretty close. But long story short, her success in Hell’s Kitchen led the city to create the Division of Child Hygiene, with Baker as the head for over a decade. Rumor has it that this public health badass also physically apprehended Typhoid Mary twice, but I haven’t seen many sources verify this.
Technically, Munson already has a statue—over a dozen of them, all over New York City—but unless you’re an architecture nerd or you’ve listened to this 99% Percent Invisible podcast episode, then chances are you’ve walked past sculptures of Munson without giving her the recognition she deserves. Munson initially moved to NYC with her mother in 1909 to pursue a career on the stage, but as fate would have it, one day while the pair were walking down Fifth Avenue, a photographer named Felix Benedict Herzog stopped them to ask if Munson could pose for him in his studio. Her mother eventually consented, and after Herzog shared the photos with his friends in the art world, she began posing for sculptors, often in the nude. By 1915 she had posed for a whole host of statues for public buildings in New York and elsewhere, earning Munson the nicknames “Miss Manhattan” and “the Panama-Pacific Girl.” Munson soon tried her hand starring in silent films, often playing the role of nude model. Unfortunately, her rising star came crashing back down to earth when a couple of scandals—one involving a deranged, lovesick landlord and another involving a handsy producer—marred her career. Although neither of those incidents were her fault, she became blacklisted. Soon enough, Munson became depressed and her mother, unable to care for her, committed Munson to St. Lawrence State Hospital for the Insane in Ogdensburg, New York in 1931, where she stayed from age 40 until her death at age 104. It seems unfair that the woman dubbed America’s first supermodel, who considered herself an artist as much as a muse, should be eternally damned to anonymity.
Are you also shocked that the city only has five statues of women? Which NYC women would you want honored?