RICHMOND — The capital of Virginia is under occupation by armies of metal and stone.
That’s about to change.
As we lose our minds arguing about monuments — who should stay, who should go and what that means — Richmond is about to do something unprecedented.
Behind a circle of construction fencing right up at the top of the grounds near the Capitol, the Virginia Women’s Monument is being erected. It will be a plaza filled with life-size, approachable statues of notable women from four centuries of Virginia history. When it’s complete, the number of men and women honored on historic Capitol Square will be even — 12 statues of men and 12 statues of women.
Parity at last, in metal and stone.
“As we did research for the project, we did not find any state that had this type of monument,” said Susan Clarke Schaar, the clerk of the state Senate. “You might find a statue of one woman, but nothing that covers over 400 years of women’s contributions to the state and the nation.”
The project began eight years ago, when a group of Richmond women fed up with the war, war, man, horse, war scenario came to the General Assembly wanting to make a change. They were all in their 80s and 90s, and they had wisdom. And a vision.
“They were very concerned that women were not depicted,” Schaar said. “And young people were not learning about the contributions that women made.”
It’s easy not to notice this, actually.
Everyone I talked to in Richmond over the weekend had the same reaction when I asked them about the lack of women represented in the current monuments. A moment to pause, think and then respond.
“Yeah. No women. You can find Washington everywhere. But where are the women?” said a 22-year-old medical student, who was touring the Capitol’s grounds with her mom and sister.
We’re so used to seeing those warring men when we think of statues. The pigeon in children’s books always lands on the head of a man in uniform. The park usually has a fountain and a man on a horse.
What about Lady Liberty and Lady Justice? Don’t we have the latter outside so many courtrooms in America? And don’t forget the partially nude Lady Virtue, who has been the center of the Virginia state seal since four men created it in July 1776.
Our culture has been good at making principles female, but terrible at honoring actual women.
“Yes, most statues involving women today are allegorical,” Schaar said.
We’re talking real women.
“How about the women who worked for the right to vote?” suggested the medical student’s mom, who also had the same aha moment when she thought about it.
“Or Sojourner Truth? She belongs in all these places. Or someone like her,” said the sister.
They’re coming, sisters.
Thanks to those determined Richmond women.
They got together with Schaar and a couple of legislators, created a commission and began the work. They tried to narrow it down to 10 women but couldn’t. They settled on 12 because no one could agree on which two to cut, Schaar said.
It was a coincidence that they came up with 12, the same number of men honored on the square.
Construction on the Richmond monument began in June.
Four of the 12 statues are fully funded — each costs $200,000 — and in the works. They are Native American chieftain Cockacoeske, Jamestown settler Anne Burras Laydon, educator Virginia E. Randolph and prominent suffragist Adele Clark.
The others are Martha Washington, the first first lady; Mary Draper Ingles, a former prisoner of war who escaped the Shawnee Indians and created a ferry system for her community; newspaper editor Clementina Rind; Elizabeth Keckley, who bought her freedom from slavery and became Mary Todd Lincoln’s seamstress and confidante and established a relief association to support newly freed slaves and wounded soldiers; Sally L. Tompkins, whose hospital to treat wounded Confederate soldiers had the lowest death rate of any hospital during the Civil War; Maggie L. Walker, the first woman to charter a bank in the United States; Sarah G. Jones, one of the first women to pass the Virginia Medical Examining Board’s examination who also helped found a medical association for African American doctors and opened a hospital and nursing school in 1903; and Laura S. Copenhaver, who was key in expanding and revolutionizing Virginia’s farming industry.
The selections have already generated controversy.
Some people freaked about Tompkins and her Confederate hospital and how she was known as Captain Tompkins, although historians never found evidence that she pledged to the Confederate cause. She was about saving lives.
And others were also irked that Cockacoeske was chosen, not Pocahontas.
Not everything can be a Disney movie, folks.
This isn’t the first time that breaking the war-man-horse mold created a stir. There was similar consternation in 1996, when a statue of Richmond native and African American tennis legend Arthur Ashe was added to the Confederate heroes along Monument Avenue.
Diversity before that meant statues to Edgar Allan Poe and Stonewall Jackson’s doctor, Hunter Holmes McGuire.
Last year, a statue of Walker, the African American banker, was unveiled on Broad Street.
But the monument on Capitol Square will be on a different scale.
The statues will be life-size and at ground level.
“They aren’t on horses or pedestals,” Schaar said. “This has to be approachable. . . someone to walk up to, look eye to eye with. They will be warm and approachable, like women.”
It’s a start. Thank you for leading the way, Richmond.
Read more Petula Dvorak: