San Antonio’s Need for Statues of Women and What it Means for Art, History, and Equality
By Madison Tchilinguirian
San Antonio, Texas, is a city that claims to love her history. From The Conservation Society of San Antonio— one of the first community preservation groups in the United States— to San Antonio Missions— a UNESCO World Heritage Site— many groups boast of their successful efforts to preserve Texan history and educate the public. Buildings are protected, customs are preserved, and heroes are immortalized in stone.
When wandering through the city, it is easy for tourists, students on field trips, or local residents to marvel at the artistic legacy left by male artists or the courage of the men who defended the Alamo. It might be hard for someone to notice anything missing if they are not intentionally looking for it.
Excluding religious figures and Alamo monuments, there are only three statues portraying real women, while there are 16 public statues dedicated to men, according to the San Antonio Public Art Directory. While counting figurative women, such as the one featured in Pedro Reyes’s Stargazer (Citlali), increases the number, these nonliteral women should not be accepted as successful depictions of women. In art, women are often nameless, abstract archetypes and ideological symbols. These statues can be beautiful to look at or represent important ideas. But they do not represent the important contribution women have made to history. They do not give women who have long been ignored the recognition they deserve. They do not provide heroes for young girls to look up to. Especially in the United States, where only six percent of monuments feature real women, we need to push for substantial change.
Despite the disproportionate focus on men in history lessons, there is no shortage of heroic women to admire. Emma Tenayuca, Ivy Taylor, Lila Cockrell, and Rosita Fernandez, to name a few, all played a part in shaping the San Antonio we know today. While Rosita’s Bridge was named in memory of Fernandez, and a marker in Milam Park honors Tenayuca, none of these women are as well known as they should be.
Statues can change that.
Andi Rodriguez, who previously served on the Mayor’s Commission on the Status of Women, notes that “when you honor someone and feature them, it raises them up and then you want to know their story.”
The art that surrounds us shapes our worldview. Though a few articles from the past couple of years have brought San Antonio’s lack of women in statues to attention, the issue is still one that can be noticed across the United States as well as worldwide.
In fact, Monument Lab compiled data regarding the top 50 historical figures represented in statues, where only three of whom were women. People of color are similarly underrepresented, with only five of the top 50 being black or indigenous. On the other hand, 25 of the top 50 are people who enslaved others.
Public art reflects a city’s identity and represents its values. By honoring historical figures through public art, we not only acknowledge their contributions but add depth and complexity to our understanding of history. Furthermore, statues and monuments often inspire younger students to research the figure they depict.
Though monument building is a slow process, some cities have made more progress than others. In 2018, San Francisco passed an ordinance requiring at least 30% of its new art public art projects to depict women. In New York City, a 10 million dollar campaign plans to memorialize seven women.
In San Antonio, the Alamo’s “Statues of Heroes” collection includes Susannah Dickinson, who is holding her daughter Angelina, and Emily West Morgan- beyond them it is hard to find women portrayed as heroes. People like Andi Rodriguez have expressed the need for more monuments dedicated to historical women, but little progress has been made.
When we fail to showcase the complete spectrum of a community through public art, we miss out on acknowledging our past and fostering strong bonds. Public art at its best is a meaningful way of honoring significant individuals and events and preserving their memory, but it must represent the fullness of our history to do so.
The next time you walk through your city’s historical sites or conservations, take notice of who is or is not present in its sculptures, monuments, and statues. Be sure to support initiatives to increase representation in public art. Protect public art that showcases a broader perspective of history by keeping their sites clean.
San Antonio has a long way to go before she can truthfully say that her history is being preserved. The history showcased by her public art, especially statues, is very male – her true history is not. There is no single campaign that can solve issues of gender inequality in the United States, but by pushing to memorialize real historical women, we can help correct the narrative in cities across the country and across the world.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hi, I’m Madison- I’m a 17 year old girl currently living in Texas, and I love to write. Someone who inspires me is Malala Yousafzai!