Mar 17, 2023 - News

Richmond's monumental women

The Maggie L. Walker Memorial Plaza is at Broad and Adams streets. Image: Courtesy of the National Park Service

Richmond, which once had the distinction of being the city with the most Confederate statues, is actually doing better than most cities in the nation when it comes to statues honoring women.

Why it matters: Public art in the U.S. has long presented a lopsided view that can leave the impression American history is all horses and white male military veterans.

Driving the news: For Women's History Month, Axios' Chelsea Brasted looked into whether increased awareness of the lack of diversity in monuments and sculptures has created actual change.

  • She found that it's easier in most of the United States to find a sculpture of a mermaid than of any American-born woman who actually is part of this world.
  • That's according to Monument Lab, a nonprofit that in 2021 counted who and what Americans honor in their public art — 22 sculptures of mermaids, to 21 honoring abolitionist Harriet Tubman nationwide.

Yes, but: Richmond has nearly a dozen statues of women, most of which depict named, real historical figures.

  • Comparatively, D.C. is home to about six and Chicago two.

Of note: No comprehensive, up-to-date ledger of American public art installations exists, but researchers agree that women and people of color are deeply underrepresented.

Zoom in: The 10-foot bronze statue of Maggie L. Walker unveiled in Jackson Ward in 2017 was the city's first significant monument to a woman.

  • The plaza where it sits has 10 benches describing Walker's achievements, including being the first woman to charter a bank.

"Voices from the Garden: The Virginia Women’s Monument" was unveiled in Capitol Square in 2019 — the result of nearly a decade of work by a General Assembly-created commission.

  • The monument features seven life-size statues of Virginia women throughout the commonwealth's history, and five more will be added in the coming years.
  • An additional 230 Virginia women are named on a wall surrounding the monument.

Nearby in Capitol Square, Barbara Johns, who led a student protest of school segregation, leads one side of the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial, which also features multiple other women.

Plus: The Emancipation and Freedom Monument on Brown's Island depicts an unnamed woman.

Meanwhile, Richmond is home to way fewer monuments to white men atop horses than it used to be — and was recognized in 2020 by the Southern Poverty Law Center for removing the most Confederate symbols.

The bottom line: In a city where monuments have been so entrenched in our collective identity, it's nice to have a new class of statues we can celebrate.


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