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Monumental women: Breaking the bronze ceiling

Putting women on a pedestal
Putting women on a pedestal 07:39

If you are among the millions of visitors to New York City's Central Park each year, you've seen the statues that dot the landscape honoring Shakespeare, Alexander Hamilton and Christopher Columbus. So, who's missing?

"How can you have statues of men everywhere, and the only statues of women are Mother Goose, Alice in Wonderland?" said Coline Jenkins. "We needed real women."

In the park there are 22 statues of men … and one dog, Balto, who was – you guessed it – male.

"The women who have played such a vital part of history are invisible, until now," said Pam Elam. She and Jenkins run the Monumental Women campaign. Their goal: to erect a monument in Central Park honoring women's suffrage pioneers Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. 

Their efforts haven't exactly been a walk in the park. "They said immediately, 'No, there will be no new statues in Central Park. It's a historical collection, no,'" said Elam. "We persisted. Then they said, 'Well, can you pick another park? And do you really want a statue? How 'bout a nice garden?' We persisted."

Poet Robert Burns is one of 22 men commemorated by a statue in New York's Central Park. There are no statues commemorating historical figures who are women. CBS News

"To have two powerful women and a powerful movement represented here, that's important," Jenkins said.

Jenkins, who is the great-great-granddaughter of Stanton, says breaking the bronze ceiling isn't easy.

Consider this: When a monument depicting Stanton alongside Susan B. Anthony and fellow suffragist Lucretia Mott was donated to the United States Congress in 1921, its tortured journey became something of a metaphor for the battle for equal representation. 

The statue was moved the day after it was unveiled. "The gift was moved into the Rotunda, but very shortly thereafter moved into the Crypt – the land of the dead!" Jenkins said.

This monument to advocates for women's rights Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott, sculpted by Adelaide Johnson, was unveiled in the Capitol Rotunda on February 15, 1921. The next day it was moved downstairs to the Crypt, where it stayed for 76 years.  CBS News

The statue remained beneath the Capitol until 1997, when the work of art was finally returned, to cheers, to the Rotunda.

Correspondent Faith Salie asked, "What does it say about the way women have been viewed, that this monument was put in a Crypt for years?"

"It's the wrong message," Jenkins replied. "One needs to see role models and inspiration in order to understand where we came from, but also what our basic values are that will dictate where we're going to."

And if you think the lack of statues honoring women is a rarity, think again; nationwide, there are more than 5,000 outdoor statues of people of all sorts. But estimates show fewer than 400 of them (or 8%) are of women.  

Of course, the debate over our public monuments is becoming a familiar one: we've seen protests over statues of Confederate figures. While some of those statues are coming down, Jenkins says it's time to put more and more women up on a pedestal

"Statues are symbols," she said. "And furthermore, it's my money, your money, our tax dollars that are building those monuments."

Psychologist Lynette Long, who heads the group Equal Visibility Everywhere, said of statues, "They breathe life into history. And because of the cost and massive size, they say, 'This person is really important.'"

And, Long says, it's about a lot more than just statues: "One day I said to my son, 'How would you feel if you looked at every statue and it was a woman? And on all the coins it was a woman? And all the streets are named after women, and the schools, national holidays? There's not a single holiday named after a woman. And he's like, 'I get it.'"

Salie asked, "How do you get people to care?"

"Well, you have to make them believe it's hurting them, or hurting their children," Long said. "And it is. Eighty percent of communication is nonverbal. So, you can tell girls, and I hear it all the time, 'You can be whatever you wanna be.' But what do they see? They see you can't."

Chicago is taking steps to change that. Earlier this year a street was renamed for Ida B. Wells, the civil rights activist who documented lynchings in the 1890s.

"To have an African American woman honored in such a high-profile way in such a large city, it just makes me feel we've arrived!" laughed Michelle Duster, Wells' great-granddaughter. 

Born into slavery, Ida B. Wells would eventually become an educator, journalist, and co-founder of the NAACP. Chicago has renamed Congress Parkway in her honor.  CBS News

Duster is raising money to erect a monument honoring Wells. But, she adds, as new statues (like the one proposed for Central Park) emerge, it's important to take off our rose-colored glasses.

"These women were suffragists, and they believed in the women's right to vote, but they didn't believe in black women's right to vote, and they didn't believe in black men's right to vote. [So] tell the whole story," Duster said.

"How do we do that?" Salie asked.

"I think there could be a plaque that's put near the statue, or on the base of a statue or something, that just kind of gives, like, an asterisk caveat," Duster replied.

Which brings us back to Central Park and the new monument to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. What will it look like? Let's just say it's a work in progress.

Sculptor Meredith Bergmann said, "When people see these two women, I want them to feel inspired and encouraged to fight for what they believe is right."

Sculptor Meredith Bergmann at work on a monument to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. CBS News

The project has already inspired a small army with big ideas: Girl Scouts, who have raised money and awareness. 

"I hope that one day, there will be a 50/50 ratio," said Girl Scout Katalin Nazansky. "Women need the recognition for doing what they do. And we've done so, so many great things!"

The statue will be unveiled in August of next year, which marks the centennial of women gaining the right to vote.

Change being chiseled one statue at a time. But there's still a long way to go.

Michele Coen is curator of the collection in Statuary Hall at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. She says each state gets to decide which two statues represent it, and out of the 100 statues on display today, there are nine that commemorate women.

But now Kansas plans to replace one of its statues with a tribute to aviator Amelia Earhart. "Amelia Earhart is in the pipeline. We hope we'll see her soon!" Coen laughed.

The Kansas statue of John James Ingalls, a newspaper editor and U.S. Senator, has resided in Statuary Hall since 1905. The man who was second cousin, once removed from "Little House on the Prairie" author Laura Ingalls Wilder will be replaced by a statue of aviator Amelia Earhart. CBS News

Charged with bringing the pioneering aviator back to life are brothers George and Mark Lundeen, of Loveland, Colorado.

"We wanted to convey her as a strong woman, which she was," said Mark.

Soon, Amelia Earhart will take her place alongside all those men. You might say that history is looking up.

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Story produced by Robbyn McFadden.

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