Ridgefield sculptor’s monumental statue in Central Park honors historic advocates for women’s rights
Seated at a small table, Sojourner Truth is talking to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who listens while holding a pen in her right hand. Between them stands Susan B. Anthony, clutching a pamphlet and looking at Stanton.
“I wanted to portray them as having a conversation in flux,” Meredith Bergmann said about the three 19th-century women’s rights leaders. “They are also displaying three elements that were vital to the suffragette movement: Speaking, writing, and organizing.”
Bergmann, a Ridgefield resident, is the artist who created the 14-foot tall bronze statue of Truth, Stanton and Anthony that was unveiled in New York’s Central Park last Wednesday, Aug. 26 — on the 100th anniversary of ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.
The monument, itself, is historical: It’s the first statue of nonfictional women to be placed in Central Park, joining the nearly two dozen statues and busts of celebrated male figures.
“My hope is that all people, especially girls and boys, will be inspired by this scene of women of different races, different religious backgrounds and different economic status working together to make the world better,” Bergmann said.
Monumental Women, a nonprofit group that formed in 2014 and worked to raise money and get the project approved, chose Bergmann as one of four finalists from a field of 91 sculptors. The finalists spent several months designing maquettes, and Bergmann was awarded the commission in July 2018.
“Time was the biggest challenge,” said Bergmann, a sculptor for more than 40 years who has created many other public monuments, including the Boston Women’s Memorial. “Two years isn’t much for a large project like this.”
Several aesthetic changes added more stress to the tight time line. The initial design called for a statue of Stanton and Anthony that recognized other important women’s rights leaders. But that version — which had Stanton and Anthony reading a scroll with quotations from Truth and 21 more suffragettes — was criticized for marginalizing the contributions of the other activists.
The scroll was removed in the second version, which the New York City Public Design Commission approved. But criticism — including an op-ed in The New York Times — about women of color being unrepresented led to another design shift, and Truth (a Black woman who escaped slavery and became an abolitionist and suffragist) was added to the statue.
“Sojourner was my idea,” Bergmann said. “She was a contemporary of Stanton and Anthony and they shared stages. There’s also a letter from Stanton to Truth.”
Tall and heavy
Following research that included reading speeches and written documents and studying photos of the three women, Bergmann worked on the clay statue in her home studio, a sun room with an 11-foot high ceiling. Bergmann and her husband, Michael, moved to the house in 2016, following 21 years in Manhattan.
“Susan B. Anthony is nine-feet tall,” Bergmann said. “We were running up and down on ladders to reach the top of her.”
After the bronze was cast and sections welded together at a foundry in Rock Tavern, N.Y., the statue was transported to Central Park on a flatbed trailer. “The top part of the monument weighs 6,000 pounds,” Bergmann said. “It was placed atop a five-foot tall pedestal in the park.”
Titled Women’s Rights Pioneers, the monument stands on the northwest corner of Central Park’s Literary Walk, a quarter-mile stretch that also includes statues of William Shakespeare, Robert Burns, and Sir Walter Scott. Other statues and busts of historical figures (all men) are located throughout the 840-acre park, as are statues of fictional characters such as Romeo and Juliet and Alice in Wonderland.
“It’s almost unbelievable that it took so long [to get a monument honoring historical women],” Bergmann said. “But the park also had a moratorium on adding new permanent statues for 70 years before this one was approved.
“At first, the statue was approved to be placed outside the park,” Bergmann added. “But Monumental Women was adamant that it go inside the park, and they worked hard to make that happen.”
Several politicians and local leaders were among the guests and speakers at last week’s dedication ceremony, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, New York Lt. Governor Kathy Hochul, and New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney.
“Everyone sat separated [due to COVID-19 restrictions], and Hillary Clinton gave a marvelous speech that really captured the moment,” Bergmann said. “There were some children there, including members of a Girl Scout troop that had raised money through cookie sales for the statue, and it was fun to see them looking at the monument and asking questions.”