The three women gather around a small table, long dresses trailing the floor, hair pulled back from their faces. One holds a pen, the others lean towards her. Their frozen female forms, molds of historical figures soon to be cast in bronze, don’t know the waves they will cause later this year in New York’s Central Park.
On August 26th, 2020, the centennial anniversary of women’s suffrage, a new statue by sculptor Meredith Bergmann will appear in the park, depicting three iconic New York women’s rights activists working together: Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It will be the first statue of real women, not fictional figures, in Central Park. And it’s all thanks to a small non-profit aptly called Monumental Women.
But Monumental Women isn’t just a group that celebrates pioneering women. The board of directors is a veritable history lesson in activism. From the great-great-granddaughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to the first female firefighter in New York, to the CEO of Girl Scouts of Greater New York, and the first woman elected to the Examining Board of Plumbers Local No. 1, almost every member has done groundbreaking work in their respective field. Their push to get the statue was a long and hard one.
And it all started with an old Polish king and a phone call.
In 2013, Coline Jenkins, a Connecticut legislator, author, and television producer, answered a call from a man who was trying to get in touch with a descendant of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Jenkins happens to be the great-great-granddaughter of the famous suffragist. The man, Gary Ferdman, a retired non-profit executive, and his wife, Dr. Myriam Miedzian, a writer and former philosophy professor, had an idea they wanted to talk to Jenkins about.
After many walks through their beloved Central Park, Miedzian says she found herself wondering what the King Jiaello Monument was doing in the park. The huge statue of a medieval Polish king atop his horse seemed odd to her. “Every time we passed the statue I’d think, ‘What the hell is this guy doing in the park?'” Miedzian says.
So the curious couple did some research on Central Park statues, and stumbled upon a glaring fact: there were no statues of real women. Although there were fictional female figures, not a single one of the 23 statues in the park was of a historical female. They wanted to change that, and Jenkins was game to help.
Jenkins, now vice president of Monumental Women, says she understands the importance of public monuments. The statues that are in the park—fictional women like Shakespeare’s Juliet and Alice in Wonderland—don’t carry the same weight as an actual person like Susan B. Anthony. “If any of those women talked, it would be William Shakespeare’s voice or [Lewis] Carroll’s voice,” she says of the female statues. Miedzian and Ferdman, now vice president and director at Monumental Women respectively, had a solution. The Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Statue Fund was born.
But Ferdman and Miedzian weren’t the first to notice the distinct lack of female representation. While working for Elizabeth Holtzman, the first female New York City Comptroller as well as District Attorney of Kings County, Pam Elam remembers Holtzman talking about the lack of female statues, as well. So when Jenkins, a longtime friend, called her up, Elam was interested. “We’ve been fighting a lot of fights together for women,” says Elam, who is now the president of Monumental Women. After decades in the legislative world, Elam would prove essential in wrangling their statue into being.
It also helped that Jenkins had experience in this realm. “I know something about moving statues,” Jenkins says. In fact, this won’t be the first statue of her great-great-grandmother she helps install. In 1997, Jenkins helped move a statue called The Portrait Monument, which depicts Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to the rotunda in Washington, D.C.
“That statue took two acts of Congress to move,” Jenkins says. “So I figured this would be easier.” It wasn’t. The group had to meet with various government committees, departments, and community boards—every community district that touched Central Park—to get approval. Only now, after seven years of bureaucratic red tape, is Monumental Women finally getting a statue.
But it took a lot of work. In one of the initial meetings with the Committee on Parks and Recreation, a man told the group that they didn’t really want a statue, Jenkins recalls. What this group really wanted, the man said, was a “women’s garden.” Monumental Women disagreed.
Initially, they considered a petition campaign, but Jenkins didn’t think that was a good idea. “It would take the rest of our lives to get the rest of New York to sign the petition,” she says. So instead, Jenkins took matters into her own hands.
Jenkins decided to attend a talk at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn where Mitchell Silver, Commissioner of the Department of Parks and Recreation, was discussing his ideas for increasing equity in New York City parks. She waited for Silver to finish, walked down the aisle, and asked him point blank if he knew that there were no statues of real women in Central Park, noting that her group had an idea for one. Silver told Jenkins he would look into it.
A week later, the group received a two page letter giving a description of possible sites for the statue. Now, instead of a bed of daisies, they’re getting a block of bronze.
Jenkins’ question at the lecture had prompted Silver to effectively break a decades long moratorium blocking new statues in the park. “Never forget that people are humans and they’re reasonable,” Jenkins says. And although it would take many more meetings and legislative backbends to get all the permissions they needed, the first step—arguably the hardest—was out of the way.
With 12 directors on their board, the non-profit usually has meetings once a month. But when they’re not meeting, Elam says the board members are in constant contact. “All of us do what we must to make sure this is successful because it’s too important to just not have it happen and not have it happen now,” Elam says. She says she spends time on the non-profit every day.
However, Monumental Women’s success relies on the contributions each volunteer makes. It relies on Girl Scouts selling cookies to donate to the statue fund in Central Park, handing out fliers, and shouting and jumping around. It relies on public officials like Gale Brewer, Manhattan Borough President, who Elam and Jenkins say supported the effort from the beginning. It relies on Commissioner Silver, on the thousand individual donors who contributed to raise the money, and on donations from big organizations like New York Life Insurance and the Ford Foundation. “The women’s movement is like a mosaic and each of us puts in a little,” Elam says, quoting feminist activist Alice Paul. “Now we have our own mosaic.”
The 167-year-old Central Park is what Jenkins calls a “quintessential public forum,” visited by more than 25 million people each year, according to the NYC parks website. Monumental Women sees its work as something that will help educate New Yorkers and visitors alike, no matter their gender, on American women’s important historical contributions.
While Monumental Women mostly focused on the statue for the past seven years, the group will announce future plans at the unveiling celebration in August. Among these ventures include an app with a feature that makes the statue interactive. An email from Elam says this allows the three women to “speak for themselves.”
They also plan to continue this public education campaign by announcing a “call to action” for municipalities across the country to bring historical women into public spaces. Elam wants others to learn from Monumental Women’s seven-year legislative process. “We want to make it easier for you than it was for us to honor women in your communities.”