Earlier last week there was a groundbreaking ceremony on the grounds of the State Capitol in Richmond for a memorial “recognizing the contributions of women across four centuries.” The first phase of the monument named “Voices from the Garden” will be an oval-shaped plaza that will contain 12 bronze statues depicting significant women in Virginia’s history. A glass Wall of Honor containing the names of several hundred additional women of note will surround the plaza. Supporters of the new monument claim it to be “the first of its kind on the grounds of a state capitol.” Certainly it is a step forward in recognizing the important place of women after English colonization and the transport of the first English women to the colony in 1619.
The grounds of the Capitol have been dominated by white men since Richmond became the capital of the Commonwealth in 1780. From the grand equestrian statue of George Washington that dominates the grounds to a lonely statue of senator and former governor Harry F. Byrd, only the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial opened in 2008 offers evidence of others than white men who contributed to Virginia’s history. The addition of the women’s memorial at a critically important time will help to fill in the blanks of history as will the Virginia Indian Tribute Memorial that is currently under construction.
Recognizing the historic contributions of women has become even more important at a time when the daily news brings information on the number of women having been sexually harassed by well-known political and entertainment figures. While those disclosures have brought attention to the situation, there needs to be recognition that we are only seeing the tip of a very great problem. Many women who are afraid, feel shame or powerlessness, or whose perpetrator is a relative, co-worker, or community member but who is not famous have had to suffer in silence. Now that the lid is sufficiently off, the issue will not be able to be swept away or ignored. The path forward is not entirely clear, but giving women the respect they have earned whether in history or as head of a family is an important step. A memorial on capitol grounds of a state that did not ratify until 1952 the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote in 1920 is an important step as well.
The greatest tribute to women in Virginia may have come with the outcome of the recent Virginia election. Pending final vote certification there will be 38 women in the Virginia General Assembly–27% versus the earlier 19%. The Democratic caucus in the House of Delegates will be nearly half women as it should be. Supporting these women candidates were thousands of women working to make a difference in numbers never before realized. Seeing these winning women candidates are thousands of young women who just witnessed a door opening for them. It is likely to be that Virginia will finally ratify the Equal Rights Amendment as I have supported my entire career.