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It’s About Gender Equality Now: On Women and Statues of Little Girls

You may have noticed that there’s a new addition in the area of Wall Street. Across from the iconic (and aggressively male) bull that represents a buyer-friendly stock market now stands a statue of a defiant little girl staring the bull down. It’s an image that is simultaneously inspiring and disappointing.

First, the good stuff. The statue was created by a female artist named Kristen Visbal, who was commissioned to create the statue by State Street Global Advisors, a nearly $2.5 trillion investor and unit within State Street Corporation. State Street rolled out the statue yesterday, ahead of today’s activities spotlighting the contributions of women. While it’s only supposed to be there for a month, they are looking into making it a more permanent fixture.

The purpose of the statue? According to Business Insider, State Street has done this as part of a campaign to pressure companies to add more women to their boards. Lori Heinel, State Street’s deputy global chief investment officer said, “There has been a lot of discussion on this topic, but the needle hasn’t moved materially.”

She then goes on to explain the thinking behind the statue:

“One of the most iconic images on Wall Street is the charging bull. So the idea of having a female sort of stand against the bull or stand up to the bull just struck us as a very clever but also creative and engaging way to make that statement. Even though it’s a little girl, her stance is one of determination, forwardness, and being willing to challenge and take on the status quo.”

I can get behind that message. It’s true that more women need to be on boards. Indeed, there should be more women in all decision-making positions. I’m heartened by the fact that a company like State Street even wanted to do something like this. All of that is good stuff.

The sticking point for many, however, is the fact that on International Women’s Day, in order to encourage placing more women on boards, the statue is of a girl.

I can imagine the possible thought process behind this. Perhaps it’s a girl, because the artist wanted to evoke a “David and Goliath” vibe, and having the female facing down the huge bull be a child was seen as more successful in doing that. Perhaps it’s a girl, because the artist wanted young girls to see themselves in it. Mothers and older women would get the message about boards, while girls would get the simple message that a female presence in business is important.

However, many have remarked that, as well-meaning as this statue might be, the image of a young girl is palatable. It’s non-threatening. As defiant as she is, she’s still a child, and it seems that we as a society are much more comfortable with girls being rebellious than we are with grown women who are the same. In general, we place a high premium on youth, no matter what one’s gender. However, it’s more important for women to stay looking and acting as young as possible for as long as possible, because only then can we be tolerated and controlled. Only when we’re being demure are we pleasing. A little girl being defiant is cute. A woman being defiant is a threat.

Imagine the same statue, but instead of a young girl, it’s a 40-year-old woman in a dress blowing in the wind. Hands on hips, or hand outstretched to stop the bull. I’d say imagine her in a pants suit, but I want the image to look exactly as feminine as the current statue, just more mature. What do you think of the image now? No really. Picture it. What if it were a 65-year-old woman?

The other part of this is that feminist discourse is often about the future. About making the world better for our daughters. Images of powerful little girls appeal, because we imagine a world in which we all grow up with confidence and remain confident. The problem is: I don’t want gender equality in some unnamed and distant future. I want gender equality right now. I want women who are alive at this very moment to experience full and true equality in their lifetimes.

The more we talk about our hypothetical “daughters,” the easier it is to push off present-day solutions. Talking about our daughters is a distraction from the very real things we could be doing to move the needle forward in all areas of our lives right now. There is absolutely nothing stopping companies from recruiting more women, paying them the same as they pay men for the same position and with the same amount of seniority, or improving their policies to be more female friendly. Nothing, that is, except ingrained sexism.

That’s why it’s all the more important to talk about gender equality in the present tense, rather than as a hypothetical abstract that we’ll get around to someday. Little girls should have statues of women to look up to. We should honor the tough, brilliant, determined women that are fighting today. Women that are here now, and deserve respect and opportunity.

Women, not girls, should be treated as inspirational images. This isn’t to say that girls can’t inspire. Of course they can (have you seen Teen Vogue lately? Have you seen Malala?). This is to say that a grown-ass woman standing up for what she believes in is something that should be revered, not feared.

(featured image via Women’s March)

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