Mar 20, 2023 - News

San Francisco has few statues depicting women

A statue of Florence Nightingale in front of Laguna Honda Hospital. Photo: Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

San Francisco has a dearth of real women in its public art sculptures, contributing to the broader trend of it being easier to find a sculpture of a mermaid than of any real-life, American-born woman.

Why it matters: Monuments have historically represented our values by putting concepts and people on literal pedestals, then enshrining them with protective status and decades-long upkeep, Axios' Chelsea Brasted reports.

  • But public art in the U.S. has long presented a lopsided view that can leave the impression that American history is all horses and white male military veterans.

State of play: San Francisco passed an ordinance in 2018 requiring at least 30% of public art projects to depict real women.

  • In 2020, the representation of real women depicted in public art pieces in San Francisco was just 19%, according to the San Francisco's Department on the Status of Women.
  • Yes, but: There are just two publicly owned statues depicting real women, one of former mayor and current U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and the other of Florence Nightingale, according to the Department on the Status of Women's 2020 report. Meanwhile, the city owns 62 statues or monuments depicting real men.
  • Of note: The city has other statues depicting women, but they are of fictional women, like the ones in "Comfort Women's" Column of Strengthand Pioneer Mother.

The big picture: Of the top 50 historical figures represented nationally in nonprofit Monument Lab's data, only three are women, and only five are Black or Indigenous. Half are people who enslaved others.

  • Meanwhile, only 6% of American monuments nationwide feature real women as their subjects, according to research by Sierra Rooney, assistant professor of art history at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

What they're saying: "When we don't see people on pedestals that look like us or tell our stories, that tells us that we don't belong within veneration, we don't belong within honor, and often that we don't belong within that space," says Sue Mobley, director of research at Monument Lab, who co-authored the organization's 2021 audit of women represented in public art.

  • In San Francisco, the arts commission says it "remains committed towards reaching that goal of increasing the representation of women featured in San Francisco's Civic Art Collection," Coma Te, a spokesperson for the arts commission, told Axios San Francisco via email.

Between the lines: Nothing is permanent. In 2020, nearly 100 Confederate monuments were removed as the nation grappled with police violence against Black people, and public officials are starting to back projects to improve representation.

  • In San Francisco, the arts commission sanctioned the removal of a Christopher Columbus statue near Coit Tower.
  • Back in 2018, the city removed a statue depicting "the degradation and genocide of Native American peoples," using stereotypes used to depict Indigenous people that "are now universally viewed as disrespectful, misleading, and racist," the arts commission wrote in a report.

What's next: Later this year, the San Francisco Arts Commission plans to unveil a statue of Maya Angelou outside the main public library on Larkin Street, Te said.

  • Angelou's statue will be the first in the city to depict a Black woman.

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