A tribute to monumental women

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The Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument in New York City’s Central Park honors suffragists Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. CBS NEWS

(CBS) — At a time when many statues are coming down, some lofty women just went up, breaking the bronze ceiling.

A monument to suffrage pioneers Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton was recently unveiled in New York City’s Central Park. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who helped commemorate the event, noted that the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument is “the first statue of real, non-fictional woman” erected in the park.

The unveiling marked the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote, though it’s important to note that it would take many more decades for Black women’s suffrage to truly be protected by law.

“I would say that a tremendous weight has been lifted – about 7,000 pounds!” said sculptor Meredith Bergmann, who spent three years bringing her creation to life.

Correspondent Faith Salie asked, “Why is it important to choose these particular pioneers?”

“Well, these are the pioneers that history has elevated,” Bergmann replied. “They were the most accomplished. They were the loudest. But there’s many, many others.”

Artist Meredith Bergmann works on her statue of suffragist Sojourner Truth, part of the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument.  CBS NEWS

And there are many other cities putting women on pedestals. Cambridge, Massachusetts is considering designs for its suffrage monument. Last year, Richmond, Va., honored suffragist Adèle Clark. And now, a statue of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is planned in her birthplace, Brooklyn, N.Y.

But putting the first statues of real women in Central Park hasn’t exactly been a walk in the park.

A few years ago, “Sunday Morning” spoke with Coline Jenkins, who happens to be Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s great-great-granddaughter, and Pam Elam, who run the Monumental Women campaign, the sponsors of the statue.

“How can you have statues of men everywhere, and the only statues of women are Mother Goose, Alice in Wonderland?” asked Jenkins. “We needed real women.”

Elam recalled, “They said immediately, ‘No. There will be no new statues in Central Park. It’s a historical collection. No.’ We persisted.”

The city finally gave permission for Anthony and Stanton to stand among famous men, like Shakespeare and … Fitz-Greene Halleck?

But there was another problem: “Every commission that I’ve worked on has involved controversy,” Bergmann said. “And things have to be reconsidered and often redesigned.”

Bergmann’s original design featured just Stanton and Anthony, along with a scroll naming many women of color who also played roles in the suffrage movement. But when the city rejected the scroll, only Anthony and Stanton were left standing.

The original, rejected design of the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument.  CBS NEWS

And this design was met with backlash from Gloria Steinem, among others, not only for its lack of diversity, but also because of Anthony and Stanton’s expressions of racist ideas.

“Susan B. Anthony said she’d rather cut off her right arm than give the Black man the right to vote over the woman,” said Salamishah Tillet, a professor of African American Studies at Rutgers University. “And so, I remember being so both hurt by that sentiment. Do I look up to Susan B. Anthony, who was defending part of what I believed in, that all women should have the right to vote? Or what do I do with this kind of racist rhetoric of hers?”

Salie asked, “Do you think there should be monuments of Stanton and Anthony?”

“It would be sexist not to include their voices and their experiences,” Tillet replied. “But also it would be racist not to understand that their championing of women’s rights did not include the women who were fighting alongside them, like Sojourner Truth.”

And it is Sojourner Truth – a woman who escaped slavery to become one of America’s greatest orators – who now has a seat at the monument’s table.

The monument unveiled.   CBS NEWS

“Some historians have said that the addition of Truth is still problematic,” said Salie, “because this depiction doesn’t accurately represent the suffrage movement?”

“To have them in this kind of interracial harmony is not just inaccurate, but also it’s kind of harmful,” said Tillet. “To have a sanitized, whitewashed version of the women’s movement doesn’t serve any of us who call ourselves feminists in 2020.”

Controversy notwithstanding, Bergmann said the statue is an artistic interpretation: “They represent different kinds of activism. Sojourner Truth, who was famous for speaking, is speaking. Stanton, who wrote wonderful speeches and books, is about to write. And Susan B. Anthony is showing them papers and pamphlets that she has brought from all her activism.”

The fight for rights and representation continues to unfold. As this monument shows us, part of the challenge and beauty of America is that we have so many stories to tell.

Salie said, “Millions of people are gonna walk by this statue every year. What do you want this monument to say to them?”

“Oh, wow! I think I want the monument to say to them, ‘Get busy!'” Bergmann replied.

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