We know which people in our country’s history matter. We learn their names, hear their stories and analyze important decisions they made in school and in our public discourse. Their images are burnished into our collective mind. This is how heroes are made. It’s how they’ve always been made.
Monuments to these heroes confirm their importance.
Among the more than seven million annual visitors to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., few would fail to feel awe at the feet of the monument. We admire Lincoln because as Americans we have been trained to admire him—that face, that profile, the depth of his eyes—yet no photo of the Memorial can prepare a visitor for the experience of walking into it, being enveloped by it and coming upon him seated there. The effect stays with you for years, if not a lifetime.
North of the capital and ten presidents later, a memorial to Theodore Roosevelt marks the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. This monument, too, is a space more than a statue of a man on a horse—flanked, regrettably, by two figures of oppressed peoples. The memorial stretches like arms to embrace Central Park West and welcomes visitors in and up the grand stairs. Roosevelt’s statue, unlike Lincoln’s, can be walked around and seen from behind while standing on stairs equal to where his gaze might reside—upon the trees of Central Park, streetlights, New York City, the world itself.
Monuments cement a commemorated figure in our country’s history. They preserve legacies. They transcend their materials of marble or bronze and become sacred spaces.
But what happens when monuments are missing? What happens when figures are absent? What happens when, among the voices, there is also silence?
Pam Elam and Coline Jenkins felt such an absence in Central Park—where 23 statues commemorate figures like Beethoven, Bolivar and even Balto, a sled dog, but none remember women. Elam, president of the Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Statue Fund, and Jenkins, a great-great granddaughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, relentlessly worked to transform that silence into a battle cry. In August 2020, one hundred years to the date of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, a monument honoring lifelong collaborators and chief architects of American women’s history Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, as well as other pioneering women including Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells, is slated to be installed on Central Park’s Literary Walk.
Elam notes that the monument honors “all the women who fought for the largest nonviolent revolution in the history of this nation when over half the population was enfranchised [as a result].” Yet ask a seventh grader to describe Stanton’s life or unique contribution to American history and she may draw a blank.
Last month, the City Parks Department dedicated the future site and the Statue Fund launched an official design competition. Girl Scout Troop 3482 in Manhattan learned of the monumental effort, though, even earlier—in October 2016, through newspaper articles. The troop, then fourth graders at the Brearley School, expressed surprise and indignation at the absence of women’s monuments in their city’s park. During a monthly troop meeting, the 18 girls sat in a circle on a carpeted floor and took in the news: “How could it be?” they asked. “Not a single woman?”
Within moments their indignation turned into action. What could they do? How could they help? Ideas flew around the circle: Raise awareness? Protest? Donate their cookie sale money?
Yes. Yes. (And yes.)
During the next few months, the girls sold Thin Mints, Samoas and Do-si-dos for the cause; cookie box by cookie box, they raised $2,000—double their original goal. They also wrote letters to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to seek her support, some typed and others handwritten with doodles and sketches, and delivered them to her midtown office. Another troop had also joined the fight earlier, helping to raise even more money for the Statue Fund.
“When I found out that there were no women statues in Central Park, I was astonished,” one ten-year-old Girl Scout wrote to Gillibrand. “When I found out that there was a statue of a dog in Central Park and no women, I was even more astonished. I want to support this fund because I want women to have the same rights as men. When I learned last year that women didn’t have the right to do many things like vote, I thought that was all in the past. Now I know that sexism is still going on today.”
A month later, the Senator responded. “Dear Girl Scout Troop 3482,” she wrote, “thank you for writing to me with your concerns about the gender imbalance of statues in Central Park. I am very impressed with your hard work and activism… I commend all of you for raising your voices together. I will never stop fighting for what is right, and I am glad that Troop 3482 is fighting, too.”
In May, the troop met with Jenkins, who told them about the early days of women’s rights, including the Seneca Falls Convention, and showed them family artifacts that once belonged to her great-great grandmother. Troop leaders presented Jenkins with a check toward the building of the suffragists’ monument. Anyone who contributes to the Statue Fund—including the Girl Scout troops—will have played a small role in what Elam calls “breaking the bronze ceiling.”
One day I imagine that little girls and boys might marvel at the women’s figures in Central Park. Conversations might spring up among visitors about the women and the history they represent. Women young and old, mothers and daughters, grandmothers and granddaughters, might meet at park benches nearby to reflect on the determination shown by the suffragists, dedicating their lives to an ideal they would not live long enough to see become law.
Of course, the monument will attract its fair share of bird droppings, ram-ins by wayward skateboards, and over time may go wholly ignored. All of that is fine. I imagine it as occupying a space where conversation and life happen, a space that at long last honors the legacies of heroes, of our nation’s foremothers.
A space that is sacred.