In May, a dozen actors gathered at a stark Brooklyn studio dressed in an eclectic range of women’s garb: a traditional Native American dress, a frilly white bonnet, a tattered apron, a luxurious purple gown. Photographers snapped away as the actors struck poses, giving first life to an innovative new monument that will be erected some 350 miles away in Richmond, Virginia.
Images of the actors are being used as models for 12 bronze statues of historic women, which will be arranged in a new plaza in Virginia’s Capitol Square. Some of the women that will be featured in the monument are well-known figures. Others have been largely forgotten. The women were active in different eras, lived in different parts of the state, and hailed from diverse backgrounds. But all of them made significant contributions to Virginia’s rich history.
“Voices from the Garden,” as the monument is titled, has been in the works for a decade. In 2008, a group of women from Richmond met with then-Senator Walter Stosch to express their concerns about gaps in Virginia schools’ history curriculum. “They felt like young women and young men coming up through the school system did not know enough about people who had made a significant contribution to the commonwealth, particularly women,” says Susan Clarke Schaar, clerk of the Virginia Senate.
A monument that would stand tall in Capitol Square, the park that surrounds the State Capitol Building, seemed like a powerful way to pay tribute to the legacies of Virginia’s historic women. And so the Virginia Women’s Monument Commission was founded to put the plan into motion, and its members began soliciting design proposals. The winning design, created by the Brooklyn-based StudioEIS, features 12 bronze statues installed throughout an oval-shaped garden. A glass panel that surrounds the statues will be etched with the names of 400 additional women.
Recently, the commission announced that it had secured funding for four of the statues: Cockacoeske, a Pamunkey leader who negotiated with colonial officials to secure land and hunting rights for her people; Anne Burras Laydon, who was among the earliest English settlers of Jamestown; Virginia E. Randolph, the child of former slaves who became a respected educator; and the suffrage leader Adele Clark. The other eight monuments remain in various stages of fundraising, but Schaar says that the commission hopes to unveil all 12 in October of 2019.
While planning the new monument, the commission asked the public to suggest historic figures who might be featured in the design. To be considered, nominees had to have been deceased for at least ten years and made a significant contribution to Virginia or the nation as a whole. From hundreds of nominations, officials whittled the selection down to a final 12. (The original design imagined just 10 women depicted in sculpture form, but Schaar says they decided to expand that number once they realized their list couldn't be narrowed down any further.)
“[W]ith the help of the library of Virginia, and women's studies professors throughout the state, we looked at all of those people, we read their stories,” Schaar says.
The 12 women featured represent 400 years of Virginia history, and pay tribute to the state's geographic and racial diversity. Others honored with a statue include Clementina Bird Rind, the pioneering editor of the Virginia Gazette, Maggie L. Walker, the first female bank president in the United States, and Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, a former slave who became a successful dressmaker, activist and the confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln.
Several prominent Virginians did not make it onto the commission's final list, which sparked its share of controversy once the names were first announced. “[Someone] had a full-page ad taken out in the Richmond Times-Dispatch telling people to call me … on Thanksgiving morning and complain that we didn't pick Pocahontas,” Schaar says.
Selecting only 12 women for the monument was “not easy,” Schaar says. The process came with the unenviable task of choosing between important figures like Martha Washington and Dolley Madison (officials ultimately went with Washington). “We knew we didn't want [to include just the] people everyone could identify,” Schaar explains. “We wanted other people who are not quite as well known, but who did something significant that would entice people to learn more about other women.”
When the sculptures are finally erected, they will add new dimension to Capitol Square, which is dotted with tributes to prominent men—George Washington, Stonewall Jackson, Virginia governors William Smith and Harry Flood Byrd Sr., Edgar Allan Poe—but just one of a woman: Barbara Johns, a teenager who led her fellow African-American students in a walkout protest against school segregation in 1951.
The effect will be a powerful reminder at the seat of state government that women, too, played an important role in shaping Virginia—and continue to do so. To date, officials have chosen only 250 names for the glass panel that surrounds the sculpture garden. The remaining 150 names will be filled in over the years, as Virginia’s women continue to make their mark on history.