Post-Communist Monuments to Women

  • July 23, 2018 - 2:40 pm
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by Isabel Post

ARIA Undergraduate Researcher at McGill University

Where are the monuments to women in the post-Communist world, and what do they look like? Are women better represented in this space than outside of it? How have monuments to women or depicting women fared since the collapse of communism? To answer these questions, I coded the Post-Communist Monuments Project’s database of alterations to post-Communist monuments between 1984 and 2009, as well as used some informal data from Google Images search results, to shed light on the prevalence and content of monuments to women in the post-Communist world.

The database I initially used to measure representation of women documents action associated with monuments by collecting and quantifying media representation of the events, incidents, and discussions that surround them. Therefore, the examples that came to light in this initial research can only indicate monuments to women that are subjected to action, rather than the vast population of monuments to women that simply exists but does not make headlines. However, monuments to women that undergo action are somewhat representative of the larger body of monuments to women, therefore allowing the possibility for broader conclusions to be drawn from their analysis.

The most straightforward finding of the database analysis was that monuments to women make up a miniscule percentage of the total monuments that made headlines during between 1989 and 2009. Of the 2036 monuments used in the analysis, women were the focus or primary content of only 50, roughly 2.4 percent, or one out of every 41 monuments. While it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that women are grossly underrepresented in monuments, this figure is much lower than I had originally expected. That said, the figure does not account for depictions of women as part of larger groups in statues in which they are not the primary focus of the monument’s content, which may deflate the statistic. The rarity of monuments to women is in the post-Communist world is significant, but unlikely to be an anomaly. Rather, I theorize that it’s only a semi-localized example of a ubiquitous dearth of such monuments in the world.

I had also hypothesized that women would be primarily represented as ideological symbols: for example, a kolkhoznitsa or Mother Homeland. This theory was prompted by an prior informal study using Google Images which indicated that in western countries, women were more often portrayed in monuments as ideological symbols than as individuals. Initially, this appeared not to be the case-- in the post-Communist world; 25 (50 %) of monuments to women documented were dedicated to individual women, or 1.4 percent of the entire database. However, this disparity is likely to have resulted from the two types of data collection: google image search versus news article collection. To clarify, I followed up with a  google image search on 10 post-Communist countries (Albania, Ukraine, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Serbia, Romania, Hungary, Estonia, and Georgia) and found that the prevalence of monuments to individual women was not in fact greater than in the non-post-Communist world. So, while we can say that the majority of “newsworthy” post-Communist monuments to women memorialize monuments to individual women, this is not a constant across monuments in this space, and can’t be logically compared to the prevalence of monuments to women outside the space.

On a related note, interestingly enough, the Google Images search returned more monuments to symbolic women than the search done on monuments in Britain (5% versus 2.4% respectively). Because counting results on Google Images for “(country name) monument) is hardly an exact science, this could be meaningless, but does warrant further investigation.

Going back to the database search, the different categories of women portrayed also proved significant and contradicted my expectations. Overall, the monuments to individual women that received news coverage 1984-2009 most commonly memorialized female political figures. This figure stands at 11 monuments, or 42%. While I had hypothesized that most individual women commemorated would be memorialized for their achievements in non-political spheres, such as art, poetry, or dance, this this was also not the case. Of the 25 monuments in the database to individual women, only 6, or 24%, were to women in the arts. This figure consists of three poets, one actress, one dancer, and one singer. Next, another six monuments (24%) memorialized women as individuals for their accomplishments outside the realm of politics or the arts-- for example, women such as pioneer aviator Valentina Grizodubova or famous Communist partisan Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya. Finally, three of the monuments (12%) memorialize women for their connection to a famous man; these monuments are to the mother of Yuri Gagarin, the first wife of Genghis Khan, and the Virgin Mary.

Why are most of these women political figures? Initially I posited that this could be caused by a uniquely substantive inclusion of women in politics in communist regimes compared with the rest of the world. Generally, women were better represented in politics in communist regimes than outside of them[1]. However, further coding showed that only 27 percent of monuments to political women referred to women in politics under communism (to Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, Milada Horakova, and Galina Starovoitova). More significantly, 54 percent of monuments to political women referred to the pre-Communist period (three of which are to Catherine the Great, with the other three featuring Kurmanjan Datka of Kyrgyzstan and Rosa Luxemburg, and the executed Romanov women), and the remaining 18 percent to the post-Communist period (Yulia Tymoshenko and Anna Lindh). Therefore, although this could speak to a disparity in the mechanisms by which women could become accomplished under communist regimes (through politics) versus outside of it, this is unlikely given the distribution of these women across their respective time periods. Another interesting finding was that 100 percent of the monuments to female artists were of a woman who made her career during or were built during her country’s Communist period. This may indicate that Communism actually made it easier for women to be memorialized as artists than as politicians. However, additional research on the memorialization of female artists globally is necessary to confirm that this phenomenon is specific at all to the post-Communist world rather than simply the product of a common era.

Comparatively, New York City’s central park contains 23 monuments to individual male historical figures, but not a single depiction of an individual woman[2]. Similarly, an informal study on monuments in the UK found that 28 percent of monuments to women were to individual women in history (who are not the Virgin Mary)[3], compared to 50 percent of “newsworthy” monuments in the post-Communist world (both of these statistics include royal women, who in both cases account for approximately half of the historical women). So, are women actually better represented as individuals in monuments of the post-Communist world? Realistically, this doesn’t seem to be the case, as the database findings that suggested women were better represented in the postcommunist world were contradicted by the Google Images data. The reason for the disparity in findings could be is likely that the database catalogues only monuments deemed “newsworthy”, while Google Images tends to give search results that are more static, from travel websites and Wikipedia articles. In the absence of congruent databases, it’s not possible to say whether women are truly represented better in one context versus the other. However, it is possible to say that overall, there is a comparable dearth of monuments featuring women-- either as individuals or as symbols-- in both the post-Communist world and the space outside of it.

[1] Elin Bjarnegård & Erik Melander (2013) Revisiting Representation: Communism, Women in Politics, and the Decline of Armed Conflict in East Asia, International Interactions, 39:4, 558-574,DOI: 10.1080/03050629.2013.805132