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Who Gets Set in Stone?

Not women, according to a U research project that looks at female representation in statues and memorials.

Sydney Shea explored the Capitol grounds in search of female statues. Her findings? Lots of male figures, but no women.
Photo Credit: Jayme Hallbritter

Statues are everywhere on the grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol. There’s Charles Lindbergh, dressed in a flight jacket and aviator cap, striding purposefully toward a storied future. U.S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey (B.S. ’39), his right hand raised mid-oration, stands several yards away. Elsewhere you’ll find explorer Leif Erikson—he’s got two swords—and a host of past Minnesota governors, including Floyd B. Olson, John Johnson, and Knute Nelson.

Which influential women do you think should be recognized with a statue at the Capitol? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

What seems to be missing in all these stone and marble tributes at the Capitol is any depiction of the women who have shaped our state and country’s history.

In 2015, U of M landscape architecture professor Rebecca Krinke wrote to the public arts administrator for Minneapolis with a simple question: Are there any statues of women in Minneapolis besides that of the fictional TV character Mary Tyler Moore? The answer wasn’t encouraging.

Although there are bronze portraits of former mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and civil rights activist Nellie Stone Johnson in the city, the statue list was limited to Minnehaha, the fictional American Indian woman in Longfellow’s poem The Song of Hiawatha, and several little girls standing near the statue of the first superintendent of the Minneapolis park system, Theodore Wirth.

Krinke responded that she could feel the beginnings of a public art proposal, an impression that was solidified when she attended the Women’s March Minnesota at the Capitol in January 2017, an event designed to spark transformative change around issues of gender equity, among other goals.

To investigate, Krinke obtained a grant from the U’s Imagine Fund, which supports research focused on the arts and humanities, to look into female statues in Minneapolis and St. Paul. She in turn hired students Bria Fast and Sydney Shea (B.Ed. ’18,  M.L.A. ’19), who was a graduate student in the landscape architecture program at the College of Design, to engage in some feet-on-the-ground research around the issue.

They decided to begin at the Capitol, with the intention of eventually creating a curriculum for a course Krinke was teaching that included an assignment on memorials. Both Fast and Shea presented their findings to Krinke’s students, and Shea eventually became so interested in the topic that she decided to focus on statues at the Minnesota Capitol as a separate independent project, which she titled “The (Un) Named Woman.”

“I hadn’t been to the Capitol since I was on a field trip in elementary school,” says Shea. “But when I went to do research I was shocked by what I saw—or rather, what I didn’t see.”

Other than two plaques inside the Capitol, which honor suffragettes Clara Ueland and Martha Ripley, the only female sculptures Shea could find were allegorical and metaphoric figures, including Prudence, Bounty, Industry, and Agriculture. All are dressed in flowing Grecian-style robes; some have bare breasts.

The lack of statues celebrating the accomplishments of women is an issue that’s getting attention from communities across the country. (Shea notes that one reason for the oversight is that the heyday of statue memorials was before women gained access to the halls of power.) In New York City, an initiative called She Built NYC has set out to increase the number of statues of history-making women in outdoor public spaces; there are currently five, as opposed to the 145 that honor men. There are plans to add five new statues of women in New York, starting with Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman to serve in Congress. In San Francisco, city leaders have decided that in the future, at least 30 percent of real people depicted in public art, building names, and streets must be women.

The cumulative effect of these past omissions, according to Shea, has an impact on the public. “We see these statues all the time but we don’t really make note of what they are,” she says. “But subconsciously I think they really influence the way our society thinks.”

To explain, Shea turns on her laptop and pulls up images she made of all the statues at the Capitol—both male and female. The men are standing tall, shoulders back, heads raised. The allegorical women, by contrast, often have bowed heads and are shown carrying things, including a child. “These caring and nurturing stereotypes are being represented in the statues and graphics we see in our day-to-day life,” she says.

Shea, who was also a lecturer in a course taught by Krinke that looked at women and memorials, has now expanded her research beyond the state Capitol to international locations in both Spain and the Netherlands, where she spent a semester studying. Neither she nor Krinke are sure about the next direction this initiative will take and are in the process of exploring options for additional funding.

“I think this work will be propelled a long way,” says Krinke, who suggests a number of crowdsourced opportunities, including letting people create their own placards or signs on sticks with the images of women—dead or alive—they’d like to see immortalized. Shea also hopes to be able to talk with the committee that is in charge of curating and maintaining the Capitol grounds.

In the meantime, Shea hopes to continue tracking images of women in public memorials. “Once I put on that lens I couldn’t stop seeing [this dynamic],” she says. “It’s everywhere.”

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