In this country, there are more statues of animals than there are of real Australian women. Of our top 10 monuments and statues, according to Trip Advisor, A Day Out in Adelaide’s Rundle Mall comprises a group of pigs (no word on whether they’re chauvinist) while the only woman is represented by a piece of furniture, in the form of Mrs Macquarie’s Chair. Her first name isn’t even mentioned: she’s reduced to an expression of ownership.
It has been thus since prehistoric times. The world’s oldest-known sculpture is the LÖwenmensch, dating back more than 30,000 years. It looks like a hybrid of a lion and a man.
Only three per cent of public statues in Australia honour non-fictional, non-royal women: the vast majority are of dead white men. Of course, many gave their lives to protect ours, and they should be venerated. But I think it’s telling that the Australian Servicewomen’s Memorial, dedicated to “all women who served, suffered and … died in the defence of Australia”, is an abstract sculpture.
This isn’t just an Australian problem. In the UK, for example, the statistics are similar, prompting journalist Nilanjana Roy to write in the Financial Times, “This goes beyond political correctness: what children and teenagers see of the world shapes their view of it, their sense of the place they should occupy.”
Hilary Matfess, a Yale PhD student, called it a “marble ceiling”. To her, the dearth of statues of women sends the message that our accomplishments aren’t worth recognising. And where the statues do exist, they are prone to being violated: in New York City, for example, a man was photographed humping the statue of Fearless Girl. “Defacing monuments to women is a way of threatening women who publicly take up space,” Matfess writes.
Look at the anger unleashed by replacing male traffic-light symbols in Melbourne, then imagine what would happen if we pulled down statues of misogynists and replaced them with high-achieving women.
This isn’t unprecedented. The Bill Cosby bust was removed from Walt Disney World after the allegations of sexual assault surfaced, while memorials to Jimmy Savile were taken down when he was revealed as a serial sex offender.
A fountain in New York which was once home to a sexist statue is being turned into a landscape space honouring women, and Monumental Women is raising funds for artwork in Central Park commemorating the suffragists.
There’s another question here: are statues artistic statements or political ones? Art historian Daniel Kany, writing about campaigns against statues honouring Confederate figures in the American Civil War, calls the sculptures “propaganda” by politicians intending to reclaim the values of racial supremacy.
We’re happy to destroy outdated buildings, so why not outdated ideas? Still, many of these structures remind us of the horrors of the past. If we forget to learn the lessons of history, do we risk repeating them? In Germany, statues seen as celebrating Nazism were buried after World War II but have since been dug up and put on permanent display in a Berlin Museum.
We also need to acknowledge the statues of women we do have – Mum Shirl in Redfern, Catherine Helen Spence in Adelaide, Emma Miller in Brisbane, for instance – by visiting them. (Miller, a workers’ rights activist, is known for sticking a hatpin into the Queensland Police Commissioner’s horse – while he was on it.)
And do we really need more statues? Maybe there are better ways to remember the likes of Louisa Lawson, Rosie Batty or Cathy Freeman. The artist Erka recently populated the Bulgarian capital Sofia with pop-up female busts (sounds a little like those push-up bras from the 1960s), which made a splash instead of blending into the background. Or perhaps, like US lobby group Put Her On The Map, we should agitate for more streets and suburbs to be named after women, like Barangaroo in Sydney’s Darling Harbour redevelopment.
Finally, there’s a funny story about the LÖwenmensch. Initially it was classified as male because a plate on the abdomen looked like a flaccid penis. But in the 1980s, paleontologist Elisabeth Schmid identified this as a pubic triangle. It seems appropriate that the world’s oldest statue has now become an icon of the feminist movement.