There are certain hallmarks that are common to every Australian city. An overpriced waterfront seafood restaurant that’s inexplicably but eternally popular with tourists. A train station that’s best avoided during footy, rugby or cricket season, unless you enjoy getting bulldozed by sports fans. The promise that the park or plaza that you escape to during your lunch break will contain both an unreasonable number of ibises and at least one hulking tribute to a man named Charles (City Hall, Brisbane), Burke (Melbourne’s Collins Street) or Arthur (Botanical Gardens, Sydney).
Despite my lukewarm feelings towards getting bulldozed and roving ibises, it’s these bronze effigies that I find the most invasive. I get that becoming Chief Justice, venturing across the country on horseback and commanding a navy are lofty achievements that may be worthy of being commemorated. But why do they seem interchangeable from each other? And why do they always seem to be staring at me with an unmistakable and dour-faced disapproval?
The statues and monuments that litter the places we live in don’t reflect the subjects that made grandiose contributions to society as much as they indicate that we’re more likely to acknowledge these contributions if they were made by old, white men. The names of our suburbs, roads and buildings often pay tribute to long-dead namesakes, whose legacies we preserve via a thousand maps, plaques and street signs.
But they also make visible the ways in which our cities were created by men for men, and that the presence of these self-important relics in the spaces women relax or read or stroll through aren’t ornamental or incidental. They’re physical proof of a culture that sees men’s lives as significant and women (and people of colour) as peripheral, anonymous outliers who can pass through public space but never occupy it.
“Almost every city is full of men’s names, names that are markers of who wielded power, who made history, who held fortunes, who was remembered,” writes Rebecca Solnit in City of Women, an essay from her new book Nonstop Metropolis. The book is an atlas in which she renames stops on the New York City subway map according to the lives of iconic women like Audre Lorde, Beyonce and Joan Didion.
As Solnit points out, it reinforces the message that the world does not belong to women, and denies them the freedom and power that comes with belonging. When we do commemorate female figures, they’re usually queens or goddesses. The statue of Queen Victoria in Brisbane’s Queens Gardens or Athena on Sydney’s Barrack Street technically represent the female experience. Of course, our culture has always been happy to elevate the imagined lives of fantasy women at the expense of the lived experience of women who are flesh-and-blood.
And it’s this lived experience of women that cities often actively work to suppress. In a January 2015 Time article, Soraya Chemaly linked the long waiting times in female public bathrooms to building codes that hark back to the era before women entered the workplace. In November 2016, a mother’s group was evicted from a cafe in Sydney’s Paddington — the latest example, aside from cramped sidewalks and poor pram access — of the contempt we have for women who care for their babies in public.
They’re physical proof of a culture that sees men’s lives as significant and women (and people of colour) as peripheral, anonymous outliers who can pass through public space but never occupy it.
As urban planner Yasminah Beebeejaun argues in an article in The Guardian, we’re sold the dream of single-family households with gardens because they uphold the age-old model that confines women to suburban enclaves, away from city centres. But men, who commute in and out can live their lives out in the open. They even have public statues to prove it.
When I walk around the city, I often try to imagine living in a place that didn’t constantly remind me of men named Charles, Arthur or Burke. Where are the statues of Louise Mack, the first female war correspondent? Or Miles Franklin, the author and literary patron? Where’s Indigenous rights activist Gladys Elphick? More importantly, where are the statues of the women whose achievements played out in the shadows? Whose courage was never valid enough to immortalise in bronze?
The statues and monuments that litter the places we live in have never reflected the people most worthy of our respect. If our cities paid tribute to the lives of great women, there’s a chance that it wouldn’t change much. But I’m banking on the fact that it would be a pretty solid start.