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General News    H4'ed 8/23/20

Tomgram: Erin Thompson, Breaking the Bronze Ceiling

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He was in more of a rush than you could have imagined. He was obviously far too monumental a figure to wait until he was dead. After all, he would look so damn good as the fifth face on Mt. Rushmore, where he recently gave a July 4th speech backed by fireworks and introduced by Kristi Noem, the Republican governor of South Dakota. According to the New York Times, she also presented him with "a four-foot replica of Mount Rushmore that included a fifth presidential likeness: his." (Only the previous year, a Trump White House aide had reportedly reached out to her office to ask: "What's the process to add additional presidents to Mount Rushmore?") Though Donald Trump later denied that he had ever told Noem he "aspired" to be sculpted onto that very mountainside with presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt, he also put his stamp of approval on the idea, tweeting "based on all of the many things accomplished during the first 3 1/2 years, perhaps more than any other Presidency, sounds like a good idea to me!"

In that July 4th speech, he also bragged about "deploying federal law enforcement to protect our monuments" and, from statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson to military bases named after former slave-holding southern generals, he's spent months fiercely defending the seemingly not-so-Lost Cause of the Confederacy in stone and name (including its flag). He even tweeted, somewhat incomprehensibly: "I will Veto the Defense Authorization Bill if the Elizabeth 'Pocahontas' Warren (of all people!) Amendment, which will lead to the renaming (plus other bad things!) of Fort Bragg, Fort Robert E. Lee, and many other Military Bases from which we won Two World Wars, is in the Bill!"

While at Mt. Rushmore, he also demanded that this country establish a "National Garden of American Heroes, a vast outdoor park that will feature the statues of the greatest Americans to ever live" (including surely you-know-who). In this way, the president made himself a central part of the growing debate over how Americans have memorialized and will memorialize a disturbing and riven past that the Black Lives Matter movement has made part of our present. Today, TomDispatch regular Erin Thompson, an expert on the deliberate destruction of art, looks at a new historical monument going up in my hometown and considers the deeper question of just how we should remember that embattled past of ours (and via whom) in an American present that's in a new kind of chaos thanks partly to that president. Tom

The Banality of Evocation
How to Remember a Feminist Movement That Hasn't Ended
By Erin L. Thompson

On August 26, 2020, Alice in Wonderland will get some company. She will be joined in New York City's Central Park by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth, the first statues there of women who, unlike Alice, actually existed. The monument is a gift to the park from Monumental Women, a non-profit organization formed in 2014. The group has raised the $1.5 million necessary to commission, install, and maintain the new "Women's Rights Pioneers Monument" and so achieve its goal of "breaking the bronze ceiling" in Central Park.

Preparations for its unveiling on the centennial anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted suffrage (that is, the right to vote) to women, are in full swing. Celebratory articles have been written. The ceremony will be live-streamed. Viola Davis, Meryl Streep, Zoe Saldana, Rita Moreno, and America Ferrera have recorded monologues in English and Spanish as Stanton, Anthony, and Truth. The Pioneers Monument, breaking what had been a moratorium, is the first new statue placed in Central Park in decades.

As statues topple across the country, the Pioneers Monument is a test case for the future of public art in America. On the surface, it's exactly what protesters have been demanding: a more diverse set of honorees who better reflect our country's history and experience. But critics fear that the monument actually reinforces the dominant narrative of white feminism and, in the process, obscures both historical pain and continuing injustice.

Ain't I a Woman?

In 2017, Monumental Women asked artists to propose a monument with statues of white suffragists Anthony and Stanton while "honoring the memory" of other voting-rights activists. In 2018, they announced their selection of Meredith Bergmann's design in which Anthony stood beside Stanton who was seated at a writing desk from which unfurled a scroll listing the names of other voting rights activists.

Famed feminist Gloria Steinem soon suggested that the design made it look as if Anthony and Stanton were actually "standing on the names of these other women." Similar critical responses followed and, in early 2019, the group reacted by redesigning the monument. The scroll was gone, but Anthony and Stanton remained.

The response: increasing outrage from critics over what the New York Times' Brent Staples called the monument's "lily-white version of history." The proposed monument, wrote another critic in a similar vein, "manages to recapitulate the marginalization Black women experienced during the suffrage movement," as when white organizers forced Black activists to walk at the back of a 1913 women's march on Washington. Historian Martha Jones in an op-ed in the Washington Post criticized the way the planned monument promoted the "myth" that the fight for women's rights was led by Anthony's and Stanton's "narrow, often racist vision," and called for adding escaped slave, abolitionist, and women's rights promoter Sojourner Truth.

Although the New York City Public Design Commission had approved the design with just Anthony and Stanton, Monumental Women did indeed rework the monument, adding a portrait of Truth in June 2019. The sculptor would later make additional smaller changes in response to further criticism about her depiction of Truth, including changing the positioning of her hands and body to make her a more active participant in the scene. (In an earlier version, she was seated farther from Stanton's table, her hands resting quietly as if she were merely listening to the white suffragists.)

Their changes didn't satisfy everyone. More than 20 leading scholars of race and women's suffrage, for instance, sent a letter to Monumental Women, asking it to do a better job showing the racial tensions between the activists. Their letter acknowledged that Truth had indeed been a guest in Stanton's home during a May 1867 Equal Rights Association meeting. They noted, however, that this was before white suffragists fully grasped the conflict between the fight for the right of women to vote and the one for the political participation of African Americans, newly freed by the Civil War, in the American democratic system. Stanton and Anthony came to believe that, of the two struggles, (white) women's votes should take precedence, though they ultimately lost when Congress passed the 15th Amendment in 1870, extending the vote to Black men.

The tensions between race and women's rights arose again when, in 1919, Congress finally passed the 19th Amendment, intending to give women the right to vote. Its ratification, however, was delayed largely because Southern states feared the very idea of granting the vote to Black women. During the summer of 1920, realizing that they still needed to convince one more Southern state to ratify the amendment, white suffragists began a campaign to remind white southerners that the Jim Crow laws already on their books to keep Black men from voting would do the same for Black women. Tennessee then voted to ratify.

beaten and sexually assaulted by a police officer. (Meanwhile, Native American women remained without American citizenship, much less the right to vote, until 1924.)

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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