As statues fall, whom should we honor instead?
Junipero Serra. Sir Francis Drake. President Ulysses S. Grant. Even Francis Scott Key, who wrote the lyrics to the national anthem.
What do the public statues being toppled across the Bay Area and the rest of the world have in common?
They’re figures from history who supported white supremacy. And they’re all men.
So here’s a timely proposal: Why don’t we replace them with monuments memorializing the heroic women of color who’ve helped shape our state?
The current protests have given us an opportunity for a deep cultural reckoning about how we want to see ourselves. The monuments that any society erects reflect its values.
Let’s use this opportunity to address an unjust imbalance.
There are shamefully few statues or monuments honoring California women of color. In part, this is because our state’s memorialists have historically focused on early conquerors, explorers and presidents.
According to a San Francisco analysis about the representation of women on city property, “The United States has less than 400 statues depicting real historic women. Generally, statues tend to portray war heroes or elected officials, who are overwhelmingly Caucasian/White men. When women are portrayed in statues, they are often hypersexualized, fictional characters, or a means to carry a metaphor, such as Lady Liberty.”
The few statues of women that do exist are often chosen, not to honor the contribution that those women made as individuals, but because of their physical beauty or their relationships with powerful men.
One of the very few monuments devoted to a woman in California is a 26-foot-high sculpture of Marilyn Monroe in a low-cut dress and high heels. It’s now headed towards permanent display in Palm Springs, provoking some discussion of objectification of the actress whose life ended in tragedy.
Likewise, the svelte figure atop a pedestal in San Francisco’s Union Square was modeled on a young Alma de Bretteville, who was considered a great beauty at the turn of the 20th century. Not long after, she became the mistress and eventual wife of the wealthy sugar king Adolph Spreckels.
The statue, in fact, wasn’t really about Alma. It was meant to honor Adm. George Dewey, who led a key battle in the Spanish-American War. Now, most San Franciscans just call the figure on top of the pedestal, “Big Alma,” as its model became known as in her later years.
Instead of sexy movie stars or paramours of wealthy men perhaps we should start honoring more California women from diverse backgrounds who are not solely defined by the male gaze.
Women, for example, who worked for social justice, created art and literature, and led civil rights movements.
San Francisco would be a good place to start. Out of 87 public statues, just two represent real women. The city passed a law about three years ago aimed at increasing the percentage of women honored in this way, but, perhaps predictably, nothing much has changed.
A much-anticipated competition to honor the writer Maya Angelou with a piece of public art stalled with a disagreement at City Hall over which representation to pick.
One of the competing artists, Lava Thomas, told The San Francisco Chronicle: “Artists deserve better, women deserve better, and Black women deserve better.”
Yes, they do.
It’s time for us to finally begin honoring Black women and other women of color.
There are plenty of candidates. One is Tien Fuh Wu, a Chinese girl sold by her father as a child servant who ended up working at a brothel in San Francisco. She eventually became a pioneering social worker who advocated tirelessly for decades to help vulnerable girls and women in Chinatown.
Or perhaps we should consider Bridget “Biddy” Mason, an African American woman born into slavery who bought her freedom, became a successful investor, and helped found Los Angeles’ First African Methodist Episcopal Church.
There’s also Ruth Asawa, the sculptor interned with her Japanese American family during World War II and helped create the San Francisco School of the Arts. Or Maxine Hong Kingston, whose 1976 book “The Woman Warrior” broke boundaries in Asian American literature and who remains a towering (and living) figure in California literature.
My own vote would be for a public statue honoring San Francisco’s early gay rights activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who were among the first same-sex couples to be married in the U.S.
It’s time we look for different heroes — and a different model of heroism — to honor.
Julia Flynn Siler is the author of “The White Devil’s Daughters: The Women Who Fought Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown.”