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.