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Will Women Ever Break the Bronze Ceiling?

7 minute read

Kanishka Karunaratne jogs regularly in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and until recently she never paid much attention to its monuments. Then she heard an interesting fact from former U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios: there are no women among the 22 statues of historical figures in Central Park, though you find effigies of Alice in Wonderland, Shakespeare’s Juliet and Mother Goose.

Karunaratne, a legislative aide for San Francisco’s board of supervisors, decided to look into the vast green space near her home and was shocked to find it fared even worse. The only female figure in Golden Gate is the Pioneer Mother, who symbolizes the matriarchs who moved west along the Oregon and California trails. And across the 87 statues in the entire city, only U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein and nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale are represented. “In San Francisco, where we think of ourselves as this inclusive, liberal bastion of a city, even we’re not doing well,” she says.

At a moment in the nation’s history when statues have never been more political, Karunaratne set out to change that. She and fellow legislative aide Margaux Kelly convinced city supervisor Mark Farrell to introduce a resolution that would affirm the city’s commitment to increasing female representation–in statues, street names, public art and appointed commissions–to 30% by 2020. If the measure passes, the city would become the first in the U.S. to sign on to an international movement with the same 30% goal.

The first project is an effort to erect a statue at the city’s main library of the late poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, who had deep roots in San Francisco. The statue would cost about $500,000. The resolution would also create a fund for similar projects.

It’s a fraught moment for the politics of representation in America. After a protest over the impending removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va., turned violent, leaving one counterprotester dead, many cities across the country are considering taking down Confederate memorials. Now a parallel movement is growing to boost representations of people who have been left out. Call it the bronze ceiling.

Women make up 20% of the U.S. Congress, 20% of mayors and 24% of statewide elected executive offices, but occupy just 5% of C-suites at S&P 500 companies. Bad as those figures are, public art lags behind them: only 9% of some 6,900 recorded works in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s catalog of outdoor sculpture are of women. A grand total of nine national park sites are dedicated to women’s history–out of 411. Joan Bradley Wages, the president and CEO of the National Women’s History Museum, says the underrepresentation is a lost opportunity. “By having women missing, it sends the message to young girls and young boys that women did not play a prominent role in the building and the growing of our nation,” she says. “It’s as though women did not participate and they do not deserve the respect that men do who are portrayed across the country.”

The lack of monuments to women has been the focus of many for decades and progress has been incremental, to say the least. A nine-year push led to the dedication of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington in 1993. As a result of a 2000 law that allowed states to replace their representative statues in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, Alabama placed a statue of Helen Keller on display in ’09. In ’13 a statue of civil rights icon Rosa Parks was unveiled in a ceremony led by President Obama. Still, in a space that positively brims with marble figures, only 12 are female.

And in some of the nation’s largest cities–New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago–there are still only a handful statues depicting real women. That’s starting to change. In Washington, D.C., where most of the statues of women are mythical, council member Kenyan McDuffie introduced legislation in June to erect a statue of a woman and/or person of color in each of the city’s eight wards. Last November, New York Life launched a $500,000 challenge grant–when people donate money, the company will match until they reach the goal–to get statues of suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony erected in Central Park. The planned suffragist statue, which should be erected in time for the 100th anniversary of women’s gaining the right to vote in 2020, would be the park’s first monument to real women.

“Central Park is visited by so many people, and it’s such an iconic place in New York City,” says Heather Nesle, president of the New York Life Foundation. “To really see folks who were putting themselves on the line, doing all of this work, which was pretty radical at the time, can be inspiring to younger generations, even to some of us who aren’t so young. To show that there are ways of effecting change that lead to really positive results.”

For evidence of whether there’s an appetite for depictions of women in public statuary, look once again to New York City: the Fearless Girl has stared down Wall Street’s iconic Charging Bull statue since March and drawn in hordes of visitors. It began as little more than a publicity stunt commissioned by State Street Global Advisors, an investment firm looking to promote gender diversity around International Women’s Day. The girl became a feminist symbol in the charged, post-2016 political climate. In making its own statement, Fearless Girl changed the meaning of the artwork it stood before; instead of symbolizing the might of a healthy American economy, the Bull came to represent a toxic form of masculinity that keeps women from ascending in the workplace, much to the chagrin of the Bull’s artist. Through that ponytailed girl, the power of art was put on full display, including its potential to reshape discussions about women’s roles. But unlike the planned statues of Angelou, Anthony and Stanton–the “fearless girl” is fiction. Among those advocating for new statues, there is hope that the real women of history will be poised to stand on their own.

Changing the existing narrative around the role of women in U.S. history has become a focus of Treasurer Rios’, who led the effort to put a woman on the face of U.S. currency for the first time in a century. As a candidate, President Trump was critical of Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s decision to replace Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the face of the $20 bill, but since taking office his Administration has been quiet about any plans for future currency. Since leaving the Treasury, Rios has made it her mission to shift what she calls the U.S.’s consciousness, first by educating people about gender disparities and then challenging them to do something about it. “We know that our daughters are capable of anything, right?” Rios said in a recent TEDx talk. “But they need inspiration in order to have aspirations.”

Statues and portraits, of course, are hardly the only way we learn history, which is why Rios–who gave the speech on Central Park statues that inspired Karunaratne–launched the Teachers Righting History project, which gets students and educators to include more stories of historical women in everyday learning. On Aug. 26 she’s co-hosting a conference with the city of San Francisco that will bring together educators, students, and business and tech leaders to advance all of these efforts.

The movement to increase women’s representation is about more than just erecting a few statues. It’s about sending a message to young boys and girls that the other half of the population had a hand in shaping the nation’s history.

“Our goal is not just statues,” says Karunaratne, “but also building names and park names and street names so that we start to get comfortable and familiar with women’s names as much as we are with men’s names and recognize that they are of equal importance.”

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