Boston Women's Memorial Dedication Ceremony October, 25th 2003
Boston Women's Memorial Dedication Ceremony October, 25th 2003
Mayor Menino, Gentlemen and Ladies,
I would like to thank Marie Turley, the Boston Women's Commissioner, for all the work she put into this Memorial project, organizing people, funds and facilities and especially for the many times she was able to graciously turn her attention from the many kinds of urgent help the Commission extends to the women of Boston.
In June of 1998 the city of Boston gave me the tremendous opportunity to create this Women's Memorial. Today I give back to this wonderful city the embodiment of everything I've learned from my work and an opportunity. An opportunity to remember the Ladies. I mean this not only in the sense that renewed attention is being paid to the lives of Abigail Adams, Phillis Wheatley and Lucy Stone or to women in general, but in a more homely sense, more like that maternal admonishment "remember your sweater." The citizens of Boston now lead the world in remembering, in a way that imagines for the future, what we might mean by "ladies".
In the course of making this memorial, under Abigail's watchful gaze, I have written a few persuasive letters. Under Phillis' influence I have begun to study poetry and have written in forms I would otherwise never have attempted. And I have been emboldened by Lucy's powerful rhetoric to speak for a moment today about Women. When I first heard that I had won the competition for this commission I had two intensely emotional responses. Their order is important. First I thought, "Who, little Me?" Then welled up: "After 20 years, it's about time!!" Within every feminine person, trained to scrutinize her self for the appropriateness of her appearance and behavior in every situation, hides a little monster of ambition that presumes to have an opinion on everything and wants the world to shape up. This monster uses whatever words she needs. This monster never has bad hair or figure problems. This monster is not a woman's body but a woman's spirit.
We are still at the beginning of a process of fundamental change in human behavior: the liberation of women. This is not automatic, inevitable or to be taken for granted. Other countries are experimenting with suppressing us as we have not been suppressed for years. Lucy Stone believed that "As comradeship and true partnership between the sexes increase, the worst passions of society cannot but sink into a more remote obscurity." Has this happened yet? Two hundred and twenty three years ago Abigail Adams wrote to her son, "These are times in which a genius would wish to live... Great necessities call out great virtues... qualities which would otherwise lie dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman." Today she could write like that to her daughter - we have both heroines and stateswomen. In our lifetime we may have a female president whose daughter may also be elected president.
Last year I was a finalist for a commission to erect a Civil Rights Memorial on the campus of the University of Mississippi. One of the images I proposed was a large bas-relief panel on which I wanted to sculpt an African-American woman giving a speech. The panel was inscribed "First United States President From Mississippi." I didn't win the competition, but history may prove me right.
Issues of modesty and presentation may never go away. They have been with us since the woman our culture calls the first woman was supposedly caught tasting that first apple, and women have been fighting for the right to knowledge ever since. Lucy Stone picked nuts, I think, to sell so that she could buy the same textbooks as those her father bought for her brother. But when she spoke her inflammatory words to the world her dress was plain and her voice was sweet and quiet. She never sought fame for its own sake, but only wanted, in all modesty, to change the world. She did, but was literally written out of history by her rivals. No longer.
External, legal freedom was denied to Phillis Wheatley. But she sought the inner freedom that enabled her to write and here she makes her pedestal a desk. Within her pose in sculptor's language read her struggle, indirectness, concentration. Read her words: "intrinsic ardor" fueled their climb up to the light she loved to praise. Her words, her letters grow on us because democracy requires that we continue shining light upon our past mistakes, especially the sin of slavery. Her triumph is the freedom that she found and recognized within herself. Today we might repeat for Phillis and ourselves, what Auden wrote of Yeats and to all poets:
"...With the farming of a verse Make a vineyard of the curse." "...In the prison of his days Teach the free man how to praise."
Sometimes the only way to teach a free man was to make him laugh. Abigail spelled out her proposal for the Constitutional protection of women's rights once, at the right moment, and softened her audacity with a teasing manner. She must have known what John's reaction would be, but she tried to be heard. You can still hear this tone, in families where the daughter wants what the son has already been given, even if it's not traditionally feminine, or a wife promises a husband that some activity will not interfere with her duties to home and family. Seldom has so serious an inequality been addressed with so much skillful charm. She was a natural diplomat, but her training as a woman made her even more subtle.
Lucy could be blunt: "Woman will not always be a thing."
Sculptures are things. And there are those who would prefer a monument that did not feature depictions in the realist tradition. But I think this memorial, this subject, cries out for statues. For centuries women were their bodies- their minds and spirits were things to be carefully controlled. In today's free-thinking world, so seemingly distant from nature, so virtual, it seemed important to me to emphasize that women, far more than men, cannot easily escape their bodies. Those bodies are wonderful life-giving things, and I wanted to honor them with the most beautiful figurative sculptures I could make.
It's important, however, for young women to realize that they are not merely their bodies, that there may come a time when they are not distracted by the fear of being too small or too big or too ugly or too sexy or too fat or too thin. That time may come in a moment of anger, but it is a moment of truth. That's the spirit speaking, which feels no gender, color, race, ethnicity, size or shape. It grows toward what it loves and away from what it hates. The message of this memorial is that the spirit craves something to do in life, to do urgently, passionately and self-forgetfully. These three women committed themselves completely to their life's work, and in that sense led happy and blessed lives. They turned their thoughts to ideals and the needs of other people, and that made them great ladies.
You can see from the program how very many people there are - who worked on this memorial and contributed to it in various ways. It has been an honor to work on a project that carries the wishes of so many. Now it is time to find out whether I did you justice. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
- Meredith Bergmann