Representation of women in the public sphere is a central theme in Sisters in Freedom, the new film I co-directed with Andrew Ferrett. You can imagine, then, that I was disappointed to learn that there are more statues of Benjamin Franklin in the city of Philadelphia—more statues of one single man—than there are statues of prominent women.
“[Statues] may be an antiquated idea,” Penny Balkin Bach, executive director and chief curator at the Association for Public Art, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “They’re using a format from the past… Maybe it wasn’t such a great formula to begin with.”
But women have long engaged in fights for better public representation—especially women of color.
In 1833, long before the Civil War and the slow painful end of slavery in the U.S., a group of black and white women came together in Philadelphia to have their voices heard on the abolition of slavery. They formed the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society (PFASS), and quickly went on to harness public space in revolutionary ways.
The women of the PFASS were exceptional for a number of reasons. In the 1830s, “respectable” white women did not go out unless they were accompanied by a male relative—a husband, father or brother. For black women, going out without the protection of a man was downright dangerous, because women of color could be accosted on the street with impunity. Yet these black and white women—most, if not all, from prominent families, including southern slave-holding families—went together, door to door, without the protection of any man to take this life-and-death cause to their neighbors and fellow citizens. That action alone, at the time, was practically an act of civil disobedience.
But the biggest challenge for PFASS was finding a place to meet in the city of Philadelphia. Unaccompanied black and white women looking for a place to gather and agitate on behalf of the enslaved? No landlord or building owner was willing to take the risk. Of course, that alone couldn’t stop them, either. These daring women instead raised the money to build Pennsylvania Hall, creating a safe place to meet and organize.
That Hall was a true monument to the power of women. The building was dedicated on May 14, 1838. And just three days later, during the inaugural Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, it was burned to the ground by anti-black rioters.
PFASS was rare for its time, as a racially integrated group dedicated to the abolition of slavery. Like all public-facing organizations in this period, the American abolition movement’s leadership was largely white and male. The inclusion inherent in the organization’s structure was an aberration; the exclusion of non-white women in the abolitionist movement continued through to the Civil War, and even into the women’s suffrage movement.
Today, women’s representation in the public sphere continues to be a stubborn battle—as does the fight for a more inclusive movement for gender equality. For non-white women, both challenges remain urgent—and progress, frustratingly slow.
But I see hope on the horizon—in Washington, D.C., of all places! Not because there has not been a sudden increase in the dedication of statues of exceptional women in our nation’s capital, but because there has been a dramatic increase in the number of women claiming space elsewhere on the Hill. The recent election of so many women—and especially the victories of women of color—gives me good reason to be cautiously optimistic.
Once they get the job done, we can worry about building them their own statues, too.