By Carol Tannenhauser
With voting rights a central issue in Congress and the nation today, Meredith Bergmann’s monument to the leaders of the U.S. Woman Suffrage Movement takes on new meaning.
“Women’s Rights Pioneers” is the first monument to be placed in Central Park in over 50 years, and the first ever to feature a real woman — in fact, three: Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It occupies a coveted spot on Central Park’s famed Literary Walk, located mid-park around West 66th Street, and it’s become a destination and symbol, Park officials say. Pilgrims came to it to honor Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and to plaster it with “I voted” stickers last Election Day.
The spot seems to have been waiting for the women. Prior to their arrival in August 2020, each male statue faced another, albeit unlikely male partner: Columbus and Shakespeare, Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. Only Fitz-Greene Halleck, a 19th Century poet and essayist, had an empty space across the promenade from him, until the three women moved in. They don’t have much to do with Halleck, so absorbed are they in their work to abolish slavery and win women the right to vote.
It was a man who actually secured the spot for the new monument: outgoing Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver. At an event organized by Borough President Gale Brewer on Monday, commemorating Women’s History Month, Silver and Coline Jenkins, the great-great granddaughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, recalled how it had happened back in 2014.
“Coline approached me after my first speech as commissioner,” Silver said, “and she told me that there were no monuments of real women in Central Park. And I said, that can’t be. I didn’t believe it. I went to my staff and they said, it’s true. And I said, well, it has to change. Who can change it? And they said, you.”
At first, Central Park said there was no room for the women’s monument. They could, however, place the statue right outside the Park’s wall. Jenkins and Pam Elam, president of the board of Monumental Women, the nonprofit that worked tirelessly to make the statue a reality, weren’t having any of that, and the present site was eventually found.
“It took my breath away,” said Meredith Bergmann, the sculptor, who was seeing the statue for the first time since October. “I’m just so happy to have it here. It’s different from the other monuments and I wanted that very much. I wanted it to stand out and tell a story.”
“Donating a Work of Art to the City has been a very complicated and challenging experience,” Pam Elam has written. “But Monumental Women persisted and moved history forward in New York City’s Central Park. We are proud that our all-volunteer, not-for-profit group has broken the bronze ceiling. It took seven years. We raised over $1.5 million in private funding. We fought through many obstacles. It was not easy to take the long bureaucratic roller-coaster ride which traveled through the Parks Department, the Central Park Conservancy, The Public Design Commission, The Landmarks Preservation Commission and every single Community Board surrounding Central Park. Step by step, meeting by meeting, we crossed the minefield which is New York City government. In New York City’s public spaces there are 150 statues and only 5 of them were women. Now, thanks to Monumental Women there are 6.”
Women’s Rights Pioneers is a “talking statue.” By using your phone you can listen to brief histories of the three women and the statue itself, narrated by Jane Alexander, Viola Davis, America Ferrara, Rita Moreno, Zoe Saldana and Meryl Streep.
Check out Gale Brewer’s bag in the picture above. It looks an awful lot like Sojourner Truth’s bag behind her on the pedestal.
“They should commemorate Gale’s bag one day!” wrote Aries Dela Cruz, her press secretary.