Hundreds of people flocked to Richmond’s Capitol Square on Monday for the official unveiling of the long-awaited Virginia Women’s Monument.
Seven life-size bronze statues of Virginia women were installed on a granite plaza just below the Capitol, surrounded by a Wall of Honor bearing the names of 230 prominent Virginia women etched on glass, with room for more names to be added in the future. Five more statues are to be added, for a total of 12.
“It’s a monumental day,” said former first lady Susan Allen, the chair of the Virginia Capitol Foundation.
When Allen lived in the Executive Mansion, from 1994 to 1998, she would talk to tourists about the statues on the Capitol grounds, all of which were of men.
“Part of the story was left out,” she said. “I think of the years ahead when people will walk among these statues and learn the story of these women.”
The women who were chosen for the monument represent more than 400 years of Virginia history, from Indian chief Cockacoeske to Elizabeth Keckley, a seamstress who bought her freedom and became the dressmaker for Mary Todd Lincoln.
The goal of the monument is to highlight women who have made significant — but often unrecognized — contributions to Virginia. The statues have been installed at eye level so that visitors can walk around and interact with them.
“This monument embodies the goals of the Women’s Monument Commission: not to put women on a pedestal, not to have a mythic or symbolic figure, but to honor real women who did real things in this commonwealth,” said former state Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple, vice chair of the Women’s Monument Commission, at Monday’s event.
Whipple, a Democrat who represented Arlington, added that the women “were famous and obscure. Real women, even imperfect women, who shaped the history of this commonwealth. Our hope is that they will inspire young women who see their names, who walk among their statues to say, ‘Oh, I think I can do that. I’d like to be on that glass wall someday.’ We want girls to be able to look at this monument and say, ‘I can make a difference. Yes, I can do that.’”
The monument — the full title of which is “Voices From the Garden: The Virginia Women’s Monument” — has cost $3.7 million, which was raised through contributions from individuals, corporations and nonprofit foundations. Approximately $125,000 is still needed to complete the monument.
Gov. Ralph Northam described the monument as a “long-overdue addition to Capitol Square. Today, we come together to honor the vital role women have played in Virginia’s history. ‘Voices From the Garden’ is the first monument in the nation to celebrate both the individual and collective accomplishments of women over four centuries.”
“Only 10% of all monuments nationwide are to women,” Northam added. “For far too long, we have overlooked the transformative contributions of women and other underrepresented groups. We’re finally telling a more inclusive story, a more complete story about Virginia.”
The clerk of the state Senate, Susan Clarke Schaar, described the 10-year journey to the Women’s Monument.
The idea came from Em Bowles Locker Alsop, a Virginia actress who screen-tested for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind” and died in 2015. Alsop proposed the monument in 2009.
The General Assembly established the Women’s Monument Commission in 2010. Three years later, the 18-member commission chose the design and the women to be honored, with input from women’s history professors and the Library of Virginia.
Schaar talked about a focus group of young women from the University of Richmond who were emphatic that a women’s monument have three conditions: no pedestals, no horses and no weapons.
They wanted the monument to be “approachable, warm and welcoming. They wanted young women and men to know that they could do anything they wanted to with their lives. They didn’t want it to be allegorical, because most of the statues to women in the U.S. are allegorical. They wanted real live women [to be represented].”
Each bronze statue required a financial investment of $200,000 and was sculpted by StudioEIS in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Ivan Schwartz, the director of StudioEIS, spoke at Monday’s unveiling. He said that during his research for the monument, he discovered “the extraordinary lack of sculptures in this country dedicated to women. As of 2011, while there were an estimated 5,200 public statues depicting historic figures in the United States, only 394 were of women. Women have been excised from the marble pedestal of history.”
He added: “Our nation’s public spaces have finally started to admit women, African Americans and Native Americans. This doesn’t change the past, but it does begin to open a room with a new view. This is a new beginning, a deeply significant moment in the history of the nation, as we begin to address centuries-old sins of omission. There was a huge void, and we are about to fill it.”
The monument has not gone without controversy. Some Richmonders, such as community activist Chelsea Higgs Wise, vocally oppose the proposed addition of women with ties to the Confederacy, such as Sally Louisa Tompkins, who served as a Confederate hospital administrator.
In a post on Medium.com, Wise wrote that the Women’s Monument will be the 224th item in the state to honor the Confederacy, “keeping Virginia at the top of the list” for the most Confederate symbols in the country.
Others oppose the proposed addition of Martha Washington, wife of George Washington, saying that she owned hundreds of slaves during her lifetime. Statues of Tompkins and Washington have been proposed for the site, but not yet added.
Vinetta Shah brought her two daughters, ages 13 and 10, to watch the unveiling of the monument.
“Finally we have a monument dedicated to the women of Virginia,” Shah said.
She said she has been following how the monuments were selected “through a lens of diversity. I’m looking forward to learning more about these women.”
In the months ahead, organizers aim to have a website and a mobile app created in tandem with the monument, so that visitors can find out more about each woman represented.