A monumental occasion that's 167 years in the making.
For the first time in its 167-year history, Central Park will welcome its first figurative sculpture honoring real-life women. Taking place on August 26, the unveiling ceremony for the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument will occur on the date of the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, which gave women the constitutional right to vote.
Spearheaded by Monumental Women, a nonprofit organization, the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument will depict three New York suffragists: Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The monument will be located along the park’s Literary Walk.
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Not Only a Moment but a Movement
The Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument resulted from a noticeable and longtime lack of plaques and memorials in New York City of, and streets named after, women in recognition of their historic achievements and significant contributions to society.
So Monumental Women looked to an important location for installing such a visual reminder.
“We decided that the best way to do that was to break the bronze ceiling in Central Park, to create the first statue of real women in the 167-year history of that park,” says its president, Pam Elam.
Before the upcoming placement of this new memorial, the only female statues in Central Park have been of literary characters such as Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Shakespeare’s Juliet, and Mother Goose. Or they were metaphorical, as with the Angel of the Waters, a winged eight-foot bronze statue over the Bethesda Fountain. These were among 23 sculptures that all depict men. Plus, there’s one of Balto, a sled dog.
The addition of the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument signifies more than symbolism. In real life, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton knew and interacted with each other through their shared cause of women’s suffrage.
“They often attended the same meetings. They spoke on the same stage, so it’s only fitting that they share the same pedestal,” explains Elam.
From Design to Development
Monumental Women was founded seven years ago by a group of volunteers and was first known as the Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Statue Fund.
Coline Jenkins, the vice president of Monumental Women and Stanton’s great-great-granddaughter, first approached NYC Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver about the potential monument at an event in 2014. The group then followed up with Jenkins through formal correspondence a few months later. Silver eventually made an executive decision to approve a sculpture for Central Park.
On November 6, 2017, the centennial of New York granting women the right to vote, Monumental Women put out a call for design submissions. The following summer, sculptor Meredith Bergmann was selected out of 91 artists who applied for the commission.
Bergmann is known for exploring history, social justice, human rights, and other issues through her work. She sculpted the Boston Women’s Memorial, featuring Abigail Adams, Lucy Stone, and Phillis Wheatley. In New York City, she created the September 11th Memorial at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and the upcoming FDR Hope Memorial on Roosevelt Island.
As for why Bergmann was chosen to sculpt the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument, Elam said that “she really knew the history behind the art and that was such a fundamental point.”
In submitting their first proposal to NYC Parks Commission, Elam explained that the monument originally was to depict Anthony and Stanton but also honor other leading suffragists—in particular, those who were BIPOC.
“We listed over 20 women, including women of color,” says Elam. These suffragists were initially going to be included on a long scroll of quotes attributed to them, which collectively would tell the story of the 72-year battle for women’s voting rights in America. According to Elam, the scroll got nixed from the design. But Monumental Women still wanted to ensure that the memorial reflected diversity. After being revised by Bergmann to include a statue of Sojourner Truth with Anthony and Stanton, the redesign was approved in October 2019.
The completed, bronze monument shows Anthony standing between Truth and Stanton seated at a table, perhaps holding a meeting or strategy session. In an artist’s statement, Bergmann described that Truth is shown speaking, Stanton is writing down notes, and Anthony, a document in her hand, is organizing.
“And that’s why we named it the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument,” Elam says. “You can think of no better three women to select in terms of women’s rights pioneers because they all gave their lives to the fight for equality and justice, and we honor them for it.”
More stories about the memorial and Anthony, Truth, and Stanton will be told through a unique audio guide. Visitors can access “Talking Statues,” a recording of monologues read by acclaimed actors, by scanning a QR code from an accompanying sign or downloading the program’s app. Recorded in English and Spanish, Jane Alexander and America Ferrera will portray Anthony, Viola Davis and Zoe Saldana will depict Truth, and Meryl Streep and Rita Moreno will speak for Stanton.
To date, Monumental Women has raised $1.5 million in private funding to pay for the statue, along with receiving $100,000 from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and $35,000 from Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal. They also were awarded a $500,000 New York Life Insurance Company Challenge Grant.
The nonprofit is also initiating a Women’s History Education Campaign and challenging municipalities across the U.S. to re-imagine their public spaces to honor women and people of color.