Okay, let’s honor women who have been instrumental in building New York City and then spend $5 million to create statues to celebrate their contributions. Let’s ask New Yorkers, the residents whose tax dollars will pay for the public art and who will enjoy the monuments to the community, to vote for their choices. Mother Francesca Xavier Cabrini, America’s first saint, was the most popular choice, with 219 votes, more than any other nominee.
Now, let’s call this project “She Built NYC,” but let’s reject the voters’ choices and add to the list men, well, drag queens. The more appropriately named She/He Built NYC program, under the direction of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, will neither celebrate all women nor honor any prominent Christians, despite the votes of the residents. In fact, of the seven honorees, only one is white. But that shouldn’t be a surprise since McCray made it very clear earlier this month, when the project was first announced, that she wanted to honor women of color.
“Growing up as an African-American woman, I didn’t see anyone who represented me in media or popular culture, even though women make incredible contributions,” she said. “Erecting statues of women is an easy way to correct that historical record.”
The members of the panel chosen to sift through the citizen votes and bring the tally to the city’s first lady were not pleased with how McCray used her authority to nix the women with the highest votes and instead choose her own.
Harriet Senie, a professor of art history whose area of research is public art and memorials, served on the panel and had this to say about her experience:
“This whole process was a charade. The committee came up with five suggestions, all of them groups of women, with the express intention of changing the existing paradigm of memorials. We were very clear and unanimous about that. That really was an outrage.”
And they weren’t the only ones disappointed. New Yorkers wrote complaints to the mayor’s office, questioning why they were asked to vote when their choices would be ignored. The Catholic Church was not very happy, either, since Mother Cabrini, the top vote-getter, was denied. Rev. Guy Sbordone, pastor of St. Frances Cabrini Church in Brooklyn, said, “People were a little taken aback, and rightfully so. They’re thinking about their vote and what it meant and why it isn’t being honored.”
The Chosen and the Neglected
So, who are the seven “women” who didn’t score at the top of the list but have been selected anyway?
- Legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday
- Elizabeth Jennings Graham, a desegregation activist
- Helen Rodriguez Trias, a Latina doctor
- Sylvia (formerly Jose) Rivera, an LGBTQ advocate
- Shirley Chisholm, America’s first black congresswoman
- Katherine Walker, lighthouse keeper who is credited with saving at least 50 victims of shipwrecks and boat accidents – and the only white female on the list
- Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender activist
There’s nothing wrong with these ladies (and two born males) receiving the honor. The problem is that they were not the choices of the people. In fact, Billie Holiday received only 16 votes, compared to Mother Cabrini’s 219.
The women picked by the citizens but rejected:
- Francesca Xavier Cabrini, the first American saint. She was an Italian immigrant who fought for migrants’ rights, founded an orphanage, taught children, and started 67 organizations for the needy in the late 1880s.
- Emily Warren Roebling led the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge.
- Janet Schenck founded the Manhattan School of Music.
What clear and troubling message is McCray sending to her husband’s constituents? Your votes don’t matter.
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