Mar 20, 2023 - News

Philly doesn't put women on pedestals

Illustration of a stone sculpture of a woman, with a large crack running through it.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Looking for a monument in Philly of a woman who is part of this world is like trying to find an Eagles fan not wearing their gear on game day.

Driving the news: Philadelphia maintains a massive gender gap when it comes to its public monuments despite years of increased awareness about the lack of diversity of sculptures nationwide.

  • And no city-owned monument depicts a historical woman of color.

The big picture: Public art in the U.S. has long presented a lopsided view of history, Axios’ Chelsea Brasted reports.

  • Of the top 50 historical figures represented in a 2021 audit from Monument Lab, which looked at about 50,000 U.S. monuments, only three are women, and only five are Black or Indigenous. Half are people who enslaved others.
  • There were 22 sculptures of mermaids, to 21 honoring abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

Zoom in: In Philadelphia, only four of the estimated 1,500 city-owned statues and public monuments — not including murals — depict real women. They are:

The city manages 41 sculptures depicting fictional or allegorical female figures, such as women holding children, “Duck Girl” in Rittenhouse Square and Little Nell beside Charles Dickens in Clark Park.

Of note: That accounting does not include monuments owned by other institutions.

Meanwhile, historical men — overwhelmingly white — are depicted in Philly's public monuments, although the city could not provide an exact figure.

Between the lines: Philly has made some strides in recent years to increase the diversity of its public art, installing its first sculpture depicting an African American girl in 2019.

What they’re saying: “Commissioning public art monuments is time consuming and requires significant funding,” Marguerite Anglin, the city’s public art director, tells Axios.

What to watch: The first monuments of historical women of color are in the pipeline.

  • The first is Tubman, for the northeast section of City Hall. The winning design will be revealed in September.
  • The other is Blanche Nixon, a community activist, to be placed at the Cobbs Creek library that bears her name. A design will be selected early next year.

Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Philadelphia.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More Philadelphia stories

No stories could be found


Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Philadelphia.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more