When a small bronze sculpture of a young girl showed up on the corner of Broadway and Whitehall on eve of International Women’s Day in 2017, it caused a sensation. Standing across from the iconic Wall Street bull, Fearless Girl appears to embody everything progressive New Yorkers value: with her chin up and her hands on her hips, she looks like she’s taking on the patriarchy and financial corruption at the same time.
But the hundreds of locals and tourists who lined up for pictures every day likely didn’t look at the girl’s feet, where a plaque hinted at a bigger story. "Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference."
It sounds nice, until you realize SHE is an acronym for an index fund run by State Street Global Advisors, which commissioned the statue.
For those about to Google, I’ll spare you the trouble. State Street Global Advisors is a financial services behemoth that manages 2.5 trillion dollars in assets. If they sound like unlikely patrons for the statue described, you’re right and you’re wrong. That’s because the statue was never designed to be confrontational. Commissioned by State Street Partners to champion their decidedly narrow goal of getting more women onto financial boards, it’s hardly the rallying statue for broad, intersectional feminism. And when you consider State Street’s own record of pillaging the national economy—from a mortgage-backed CDO scandal 2007 that cost investors a half billion dollars to a 2017 settlement for discriminating against 305 female employees—it loses some of its lustre as a symbol of economic resistance. When you add SSGA’s own record on gender diversity—their top executives are 82% male—and the broader consequences of Wall Street’s financial maneuvers on poor women, it begins to look more like a PR move than an actual move toward gender equity. Indeed, analysts from Apex Marketing estimated that the statue had given SSGA $7.4 million in free advertising after only one month of its existence. And even the statue’s sculptor herself described the piece as strong but not confrontational, unwittingly describing the nature of State Street’s PR maneuver itself: a stance that appears confrontational but, in the end, asks for little and demands little. All in all, a little shellac on an old problem.
As for me, I want to cheer for Fearless Girl. I want to take my picture next to her, and I probably will be forced to, sooner or later, when entertaining out-of-town guests. No one wants to be told that their symbols of hope are made from the same bad materials as hopelessness, and few want to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon talking about how our efforts to reign in financial excesses are not nearly enough. But I also want to cheer for Fearless Girl because there are so few statues of women, period. In a city known by monument boosters as an outdoor sculpture museum, 150 of them are men and only five are women—others, like Mother Goose and Alice in Wonderland, are fictional, and essentially insulting. (Fearless Girl herself has been criticized for being both fictional and infantile.)
The whole thing brings up the question of memorials in general. Designed to help us remember the past or imagine the future, they more often reveal us in the present: what we want to see, what power allows to be seen, and what we’d rather not know. Just take the example of the Marion J. Marion Sims in Central Park, a statue that stood for 124 years despite the fact that the doctor had built his gynecological career experimenting on enslaved black women. Meanwhile, activists have been pushing for years to get park statues of suffrage leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony—a demand finally met last year, when the Parks Department approved the measure.
As a result of the disparity between male and female memorials, we are only getting half the story of the city—and it’s usually a bad story, involving exploitation, genocide, or oppression. But in our rush to change bad stories we shouldn’t accept PR fairytales. Letting an image of a proud, defiant girl serve as a smokescreen for the never-ending maneuvers of capital is not a victory, and getting women on more financial boards wouldn’t, ultimately, be either. It keeps us from asking better questions, from demanding more effective or sweeping gender equity measures like family leave policies, a living wage, or a system of value that doesn’t exploit the poor and women’s work? It keeps us from agitating for a whole new financial system altogether, where wealth is based on work, community and actual value. That is a tall order, of course, and that’s the point. Demanding these changes would require us to excavate untold histories to create a different view, more urgent view of the present. It would require us to acknowledge that a few people have long made a bad world for the many, and it would require the courage to act. It would, in defiance of Fearless Girl herself, require us to be both strong and confrontational.
Learn more about the Fearless Girl Statue on our People's History of Lower Manhattan Tour.
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