The Virginia Women’s Monument, unveiled this week on Capitol Square, is a much-needed step toward acknowledging the many important roles women played in the Commonwealth’s history.
“No pedestals, no horses, and no weapons.” This was a sentiment of the University of Richmond women’s studies focus group that was consulted on the design of the Virginia Women’s Monument, “Voices from the Garden.”
The statement, an obvious reference to the notorious statues of Monument Avenue, was met with a roar of laughter when Susan Clarke Schaar, Clerk of the VA Senate, relayed it to the audience at the dedication and unveiling ceremony of the new monument on Monday, October 14.
It was a cool, foggy morning when troves of people, most of them women, began climbing the hill to Capitol Square. Children frolicked around the seven life-sized monuments; silhouettes in the mist, their details obscured by navy blue cloaks. A journalist to my left joked that the scene looked a bit creepy. But by the time of the unveiling, the fog had lifted and the sun shone brightly through the clouds, illuminating the bronze women in what seemed to be perfectly curated stage lighting by mother nature herself.
The Virginia Women’s Monument Commission broke ground in 2017, but was established to begin the planning process in 2009. The ceremony on Monday was almost a decade in the making, but its prolonging provided some poetic justice; 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, which granted American women the right to vote.
Twelve statues in total are planned for the monument, but only the first seven have been installed and were dedicated on Monday. From the 17th century there’s Anne Burras Laydon, an early Jamestown colonist that raised four daughters and survived the Starving Time and the violence of 1622; and Cockacoeske, Chief of the Pamunkey, who signed the 1677 Treaty of Middle Plantation that protected the land and people of several tribes united under her.
Sharing the stone floor is Mary Draper Ingles, a frontierswoman of the New River Valley that escaped captivity by the Shawnee Indians and traveled over 500 miles across mountains and valleys to return home. Honored for her entrepreneurship in the depression era is Laura Copenhaver, who established a textile business to provide work for the women of Smyth County. Suffragist Adèle Clark is recognized for her role in bringing women the vote by founding the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia.
Two African American women are memorialized in “Voices from the Garden.” There is Elizabeth Keckly of Dinwiddie County, who was born a slave and bought her freedom, later becoming personal dressmaker and confidante to Mary Todd Lincoln. The other is Virginia Randolph, an internationally-renowned leader in education during the first half of the 20th century, who taught at Henrico County’s Mountain Road School and was born to former slaves.
The bronze women are surrounded by a glass Wall of Honor etched with 230 names of notable Virginia women. There is ample room left on the wall for additions, and anyone from the general public can submit a nomination here.
The sculptures are true to life size and stand at eye level by request of the UofR focus group. “They wanted them to be approachable,” said Schaar, “so that visitors could interact with them.” The focus group also stipulated that the statues should not be allegorical, only honoring real-life women of Virginia’s history.
Sculptor Ivan Schwartz, founder and director of the commissioned StudioEIS, echoed that sentiment in his remarks at the ceremony. “There is a shameful lack of sculptures, statues, and monuments to women in this country,” said Schwartz. He pointed out that until the 2020 installation of a sculpture depicting Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the only two statues of women in Central Park are fictional: Mother Goose and Alice in Wonderland.
Schwartz also gave a nod to Kehinde Wiley’s “Rumors of War,” which will arrive at its permanent home on Arthur Ashe Boulevard in front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in December. Wiley’s nearly 28 foot-tall statue depicts a black man on a horse with dreadlocks and ripped jeans, and serves as a direct response to Confederate monuments in Richmond.
At the mention of “Rumors of War,” Schwartz asserted art’s role in challenging the status quo and promoting conversation on culture and history. Regarding the Virginia Women’s Monument, he said “This doesn’t change the past, but it does open a room with a new view.”
The day of the dedication ceremony, Monday, Oct. 14, was Columbus Day — now celebrated in Richmond, by order of Mayor Levar Stoney, as Indigenous Peoples Day. Dr. Lauranett Lee, of the Capitol Square Preservation Council, had special words for Chief Cockacoeske and the lack of representation for Native Americans both in history and reality. “Where were they then, and where are they now?” said Lee. As a black woman from Chesterfield County, she recalled that she was often the only one that looked like her in school classrooms. She firmly stated, “I, too, am America.”
Remarks were also given by Vice Chair of the Commission Mary Margaret Whipple, Governor Northam, and Senator Ryan McDougle. Also in attendance were several members of the Virginia General Assembly and Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax. Susan Allen, former first lady of Virginia, gave the closing statements, announcing the names of the statues as Girl Scouts from the three Girl Scout Councils of the Commonwealth unveiled them.
Each statue was commissioned for $200,000 and sculpted by a team of men and women at StudioEIS in Brooklyn, N.Y. under the direction of Schwartz. Over $3.7 million was raised for the construction of the monument by contributions from individuals, corporations, and nonprofit organizations. But the commission still needs about $100,000 to complete it. You can make a donation to “Voices from the Garden” on the Virginia Women’s Monument website.
Photos by Noelle Abrahams