Be careful what you say in print or on the internet. You might find yourself caught up in a grassroots movement. My latest transgression was an opinion piece about Seattle’s need for ways to honor its admirable women.
My story, titled “Put Women on a Pedestal,” appeared on PostAlley on April 15. The thesis was straightforward: Seattle has dozens of statues and homages to men — a motley bunch ranging from Norse Explorer “Leif the Lucky” Erickson to baseball’s Ken Griffey Jr. But the city has few statuary tributes to women.
When surveying public art, I could count only three recognitions: a statue to Sadako Sasaki, a Hiroshima survivor; a tribute to Hannah Newman whose husband placated her with a plaque on the side of the Washington Athletic Club; and a pair of seldom-operable fountains dedicated to Nellie Cornish, founder of Cornish College for the Arts. Since then, I’ve learned there is one other tribute: Dr. Blanche Lavizzo Park, a strip of land at the intersection of East Jackson Street and East Yesler Way. The park has an image of Dr. Lavizzo, who was the state’s first Black woman pediatrician and medical director of the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic
But four tributes is pathetic, given so many outstanding Seattle women. This absence of women from public art has consequences. Does it really matter? Yes, it does. It sends a message that women are not as important as men. Without some recognition it can be difficult for women to think of themselves as worthy.
My story on women needing a pedestal had just appeared when I heard from a distinguished group — a bunch of older women who live and sometimes work downtown. They call themselves “The Walkers” and they exercise early mornings and typically start the day with coffee at a Belltown Starbucks. One of the “walkers,” Betty Winfield, an emeritus professor of political communication history, called and asked me to stop by to “lead a discussion on the issue.”
I was intrigued enough to show up on a recent May morning. The group was awesome – a gray-headed but vigorous crew of about 15 active seniors. For example there was Wanda Herndon, a retired Starbucks vice president. In retirement, Herndon, who is a published poet, founded W Communication, a PR agency that works with clients like Lululemon and Starbucks.
Dr. Winfield introduced some of the group members and started the ball rolling by asking for names of women who deserve more public recognition. Dozens of standouts from almost every walk of life were suggested. Typical of proposals were jazz and blues singer Ernestine Anderson, former Interior Secretary Sally Jewel, King County Councilmember Ruby Chow, Total Experience Gospel Choir’s Pat Wright, visual artist Barbara Earl Thomas, Sen. Patty Murray, KING Broadcasting founder Dorothy Bullitt, Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson, UW geneticist Mary Claire King, and women in tech like Microsoft alums Patty Stonesifer and Trish Dziko.
One of the walkers wondered why Doris Chase’s contributions to public art like “Changing Form” at Queen Anne’s Kerry Park isn’t accompanied by a tribute to the artist. But another walker quickly explained Seattle has a policy banning monuments in city parks. (How unlike cities such as New York City, which recently installed a statue of three women suffrage leaders in Central Park.) Seattle Parks once ruled a park couldn’t be named for anyone unless that individual had been dead for at least five years.
Ah, but rules can be broken: Sand Point Park, a former Naval Air Station, was renamed Warren G. Magnuson Park in 1977 while Maggie (who helped secure the surplus facility for Seattle) was still serving as a powerful U.S. senator. And there is Jim Ellis Freeway Park, honoring the then-still-alive founder of the park.
Realizing that city parks may be out as a locale for statues of women, The Walkers thought about other possible venues: greenspaces, light rail stations, and privately-owned public spaces like plazas. Equipped with the morning’s array of suggestions, they quickly turned to how to fund statues of women. Several thought that, with luck, some billionaire would come forward to remedy the city’s failure to honor women leaders. They spoke about how some savvy politician — mayor or councilmember — might take on the project. Such an issue could be a political winner even in a time of strained city budgets.
The Walkers also broached the idea that someone might start a “go-fund-me” campaign to collect contributions for a tribute to women leaders. This being Seattle, there soon were suggestions for a task force.
Will the idea of more equitable art have legs? Perhaps. So far no one has volunteered to spearhead such a campaign, but the seed has been planted. There’s growing agreement Seattle should remedy its failure to recognize women and take steps to ensure all members of the community feel seen and valued.
Thank you for this follow-up article; I’m not surprised it spread.
There are no shortages of women who deserve to be recognized, but I’d like to add, Janet McCloud (also known as Yet-Si-Blue). From the Seattle YMCA:
” [ Yet-Si-Blue ]was an activist who fought for the rights of indigenous people by staging fish-ins and publishing these experiences including … using traditional fishing techniques that were deemed illegal by the US and Washington state …at the time. After a highly publicized battle, Yet-Si-Blue (which means ‘the woman who talks’) along with Native tribes in Washington, had their fishing rights upheld by the United States. ”
I would definitely be interested in working on a campaign like this!
VERY interested in working on such a project.
There is a signature gathering effort right now to have a street named after Cheryl Chow, former Seattle City Councilmember, School Board Director, and children’s advocate as a teacher, principal, coach, and leader of the the Chinese Community Girls Drill Team. There are a lot of street sections named after prominent men, mostly involving professional sports.
The opportunities are strong and vast here, from the “seamstresses” who paid the early taxes in Seattle and started our first public school (something everyone learns on the Underground Tour) to those leading environmental movements (Hazel Wolf) or efforts to stop human trafficking (former State Representative Velma Valoria).
Cindi, thanks for reminding readers about Hazel Wolf, the “‘seamstresses,” Cheryl Chow and Velma. I think there is strong sentiment for a more inclusive recognition of those on whose shoulders we stand.
Incidentally, I should note that since writing this article, it has been pointed out that there is a park in Georgetown named for King County Councilmember Ruby Chow, Cheryl’s mom. Also I was alerted —via an e-mail from you — that there is a plaque to camp fire leader, Dorothy Block, in Seward Park. Maybe it’s time to lobby the parks commissioners about the sometimes policy against memorials.
I think a policy ‘against memorials’ needs more thought. A memorial doesn’t have to be a statue or a monument or something large. It could be a plaque or a marker with information about a person or an organization. Otherwise a name only, especially of someone or something that isn’t well known, especially in a public place such as a park, misses an opportunity to inform people about our shared heritage.
There is a park named for Alice Ball, a Black woman, born in Seattle and educated at the University of Washington, who developed a treatment for leprosy that was used until the 1940s. The small park is at 81st and Greenwood Ave N, across 81st St from the Greenwood Branch of the Seattle Public Library. There once was a marker, probably 4′ x 6 feet, with a bas relief of Alice Ball and some information about her life and accomplishments. It faced N 81st St. When the small park was developed, with landscaping, areas for small tables and chairs and a large lawn area, that marker disappeared, likely removed because of the construction of the park on the former site of fast food businesses and parking. The marker has not been put back, though there is a generic Seattle Park Dept. sign for the park. But there’s no recognition of Alice Ball, her life and achievements with that sign.
The park is popular and used at all times of the year, less so in cool and damp weather, but because I live not far from the park, I’ve seen people walking there even then. I just did an internet search about Alice Ball Park and learned that at least two years ago, there existed a ‘Friends’ of the park group, so I can learn more. The park was designed with community members asked to make comments and to cast a vote for their preferred design from three proposals. Since it’s located in an easy to access spot and is well-used, it seems an ideal location to adequately honor Alice Ball as well as inform more people about her.
Years ago when my friend Susan McAllister, an inspiring woman, died, we who knew her wanted to memorialize her with a park bench. But parks said that, while we could finance a bench with her name, there was a strict policy against memorials. I was told, “we don’t want to turn our parks into graveyards.’”
I think there is room for reviewing the policy to allow occasional recognition of people like Alice Ball and others who led us.
So, according to a policy, or at least a statement by somebody in (or who was once in) the Seattle Parks Department, a memorial that’s more than a name turns a park into a graveyard? I don’t understanding the reasoning, if there is any.
There is nothing resembling “reason” in that policy.