Voices From The Garden: The Virginia Women’s Monument

Monday, Oct. 14 was a historic day in Richmond for more reasons than one. Mayor Levar Stoney led the city in joining a nationwide movement to observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day on what has long been recognized as Columbus Day. Also in the vein of historically-minded social progress, the Virginia Women’s Monument was formally dedicated and unveiled in Capitol Square. It is America’s first monument to honor women on the grounds of a state capitol.

Upon its completion, “Voices from the Garden” will feature 12 bronze statues of Virginia women encompassing over 250 years of state history. So far, seven have been installed, which were unveiled by Girl Scouts from the three Girl Scout Councils of the Commonwealth on Monday. 

Girl Scout and daughter of Va. Senator Ryan McDougle unveiled the statute of Anne Burras Laydon

The Virginia Women’s Monument Commission broke ground in 2017 and was established to begin planning back in 2009. But its prolonging of nearly a decade provided some poetic justice; 2020 is the 100th anniversary year of the 19th amendment’s ratification, which granted voting rights to American women after a long, arduous fight for equal suffrage.

Dating back to Virginia’s earliest history, there is a statue of Anne Burras Laydon, a Jamestown colonist that survived the Starving Time and the violence of 1622. Also from the 17th century is Cockacoeske, Chief of the Pamunkey, who signed the 1677 Treaty of Middle Plantation that protected the land and people of several tribes that she had united under her chiefdom.

Girl Scouts of the Commonwealth stand by the statue of Chief Cockacoeske

Sharing the same stone floor is a statue of Mary Draper Ingles, a New River Valley frontierswoman that escaped captivity by the Shawnee Indians and traveled over 500 miles across treacherous Appalachian terrain to get home. Joining her likeness are statues of Laura Copenhaver, a textile entrepreneur who provided work for Smyth County women during the Great Depression and Adèle Clark, a suffragist who helped found the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia.

Two women of color are part of the first seven to be memorialized. One is Elizabeth Keckly of Dinwiddie County, who was born a slave and bought her own freedom, later becoming the personal dressmaker and confidante to Mary Todd Lincoln. The other is Virginia Randolph, who was born to former slaves and became a teacher at Henrico County’s Mountain Road School. She gained international recognition during the 20th century for her innovation and leadership as an educator.

Mary Draper Ingles (left) and Elizabeth Keckly (right)

The statues are encircled by a glass Wall of Honor, etched with the names of 230 notable Virginia women. There is ample room left on the wall for additions, and any member of the public can submit a nomination on the Virginia Women’s Monument website by clicking here.

The commission designed the monument based on the input from a focus group of women’s studies majors at the University of Richmond, which is why the statues are life-sized and stand at eye level. “They wanted them to be approachable so that visitors could interact with them,” said Susan Clarke Schaar, Clerk of Va. Senate, during her remarks at the ceremony. 

Susan Clarke Schaar, Clerk of the Va. Senate

Schaar also relayed that the focus group requested “No pedestals, no horses and no weapons,” a sentiment that was met with a roar of laughter and applause from the audience, likely because it is an overtly side-eyed reference to the notorious Confederate statues on Monument Avenue. 

The focus group for the monument also stipulated that none of the statues be allegorical, only honoring real-life women from Virginia’s history. With that statement, they’ve pointed out a pervasive issue in how America often erases women from history. In New York City’s Central Park, there are currently only three statues of women and they are all fictional: Mother Goose, Alice in Wonderland and Juliet Montague (who doesn’t really count because Romeo is with her). The planned 2020 installation of a monument honoring Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton will be the first statue of real women in Central Park’s history.

Sculptor Ivan Schwartz, founder and director of StudioEIS

The statues of “Voices from the Garden” were sculpted by a team of men and women at StudioEIS in Brooklyn, N.Y. lead by the studio’s founder and director Ivan Schwartz. During his remarks at the dedication ceremony, Schwartz stressed the importance of art’s role in promoting reflection and conversation on our culture and history. “This doesn’t change the past,” Schwartz said, “but it does open a room with a new view.”

During the ceremony, Schwartz gave a nod to sculptor Kehinde Wiley’s “Rumors of War” which will arrive at its permanent home on Arthur Ashe Boulevard in front of the VMFA this December. Wiley’s 28 foot-tall statue, complete with a pedestal, depicts a black man on a horse with dreadlocks, wearing a hoodie and ripped jeans. 

Wiley’s work will serve as a direct response to the many monuments of Confederates and slave owners throughout Richmond. Despite much controversy and protest throughout the past few years, these monuments that are offensive to many still stand. But the inclusion of “Rumors of War” and the Virginia Women’s Monument offer a more balanced perspective in Richmond’s celebration of history.

Dr. Lauranett Lee, Chesterfield native and founding curator of African-American history at the Virginia Historial Society

“Voices from the Garden” faces some controversy of its own ahead of its completion. Some community members find the planned inclusion of Martha Washington, a slave owner and Sally Louisa Tompkins, a Confederate hospital administrator, as disrespectful to the women of color that have already been honored in the monument’s first installment.

Each bronze statue was commissioned for $200,000. Over $3.7 million was raised by contributions from individuals, corporations and nonprofit organizations, but there is still about $100,000 more needed to complete the monument. You can make a donation to “Voices from the Garden” here, or show your support by visiting Capitol Square to see the monument for yourself!


Photos by Noelle Abrahams