At first it seems like the three women are just hanging out in the middle of the Commonwealth Ave. mall—a quiet, tree-lined promenade that runs like an artery through the heart of Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. Abigail Adams, Phillis Wheatley, and Lucy Stone appear as life-size bronze statues, posed around large granite blocks. Quotes from each woman are inscribed on the blocks, their words reaching across the past to tickle the present. The Boston Women’s Memorial, like the women themselves, is unassuming until, of course, it isn’t.
Abigail Adams, wife of president John Adams, mother of future president John Quincy Adams (must have been something in the water), leans against her horizontal granite plinth. Her arms are folded across her chest, one foot extended forward, her head turns slightly as if she’s been the one tapped to be lookout for this badass lady gang of three.
In addition to harboring presidential genetics, Abigail took an active role in politics to the point where opponents referred to her as “Mrs. President” (never going to get tired of trying that out on my lips). As a woman in the 1700s, Abigail didn’t just stand on the right side of progressive history when it came to lady issues, she carved out feminist territory upon which many of her peers and future generations would inhabit. She openly advocated for women’s education and for more opportunities for women in general. In one of her most famous or infamous (depending on your perspective) letters to her presidential husband and the congress, Abigail wrote:
Remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.
I count a minimum of five hashtaggable phrases in this short statement. Also, talk about your echo from the past resonating with the present as if it were blaring out of 8 billion watt speakers hooked up to someone’s low rider.
Abigail is flanked on either side by a couple of historical friends: Phillis Wheatley and Lucy Stone. The first African-American poet, Phillis sits upright at the edge of her granite block. A hand with one elegant finger raised, rests gently against the side of her face. The other sits on the surface of the stone, palm up, fingers curled in except for her forefinger pointing downward to the desk as if she had just finished speaking and was punctuating a point (I like to think it might have included a sick burn about a racist colonist’s wig or a racist colonist’s racism). Sold into slavery to a family from Boston, they eventually taught Phillis how to read and write. She put those skills to good use, stunning half of the country with her eloquent and rigorously intellectual poetry. That a slave and a woman (gasp, pearl clutching, fan waving, fainting!) could be thoughtful, smart, artistic, and, essentially, human was enough to twist more than a few knickers. But for others, Phillis was an immense inspiration and source of power and hope.
Across from Phillis sits Lucy Stone, an ardent nineteenth-century suffragist, orator, and writer and winner of lady-with-the-coolest-name. She sounds like a tough, savvy detective from a 1940s noir series who breaks cases and hearts. Lucy sprawls across her granite “desk,” one hand clutching a thin pencil in the act of composing something on the page. She was the first woman from Massachusetts to earn a college degree, helped initiate the first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts, and founded and wrote for Women’s Journal, a weekly periodical publishing essays about women’s rights and generally scaring the crap out of people.
I walked around the memorial, running my hands over their hands, giving Abigail an affection pat on the shoulder (thanks for the assist a few centuries ago, we’re kind of in a pickle these days), and couldn’t quite believe that I didn’t know this memorial existed in my town! I felt a little ashamed, but squared it as less about being a lazy feminist and more about being a feminist a tad preoccupied lately or for the last two years. Recently, for instance, watching an unhinged, likely sexual assaulter ascend to the highest court in the country where he is, also likely, to eviscerate rights and privileges afforded to women and vulnerable populations. Also, there has been all the ugly crying over new episodes of This Is Us and pretending to care about Boston sports ball teams. The sched. has been a bit tight.
But then again, maybe it was exactly the right time for me to discover these incredible women, each of whom could easily fit in along with the rest of us as contemporary feminists, represented in this unique way: doing work they were passionate about, working for change and impact they believed was important to purse.
Each woman seems animated—writing, speaking, composing—and it’s this sense of action threaded through the memorial that I find ingenious and compelling. Together, the installation reifies the legacy of all women across time, space, race, and background: action. It is simply what we do, what we’ve always done—engaged with and driven movement. Consider our greatest biological hat trick, which is called “giving birth,” “having a baby,” or “going into labor.” It’s not “receiving a slimy ball of precious goo just freed from its germination pod” (though, if science can make that a thing, I doubt any of us would mind all that much). Women have the capacity to turn the world. And it is this that we need to remind ourselves of a thousand times a day every day if we’re to make it out of the Patriarchal Fire Swamp with any hint of sanity in tact.
Women shift, we break through, we disrupt; we are fearsome kinetic energy refusing to be bound. We will corner you in an elevator, senator, and you will feel our hot, incensed breath, the heat of righteousness and pain, pushing against your face as we make you reckon with our inconvenient, unrestrained selves. We travel thousands of miles to march, to sit-in, to stage die-ins, to meet, to canvas, to move and be moved, to do the work that needs to be done.
Like Abigail, Lucy, and Phillis, hundreds of thousands of women have taken themselves down from their symbolic pedestals and platforms, surging into their communities and surrounding areas, applying what they have and doing their own part to make a difference during this extraordinary, distressing, dark, and also exhilarating time.
I step around the memorial, snapping photos and consider these three women who are carrying the history of millions on their bronze shoulders. I marvel at how difficult it must have been at that time to not just be a woman in the world, but to be a woman so active in the world. I think of what new difficulties we face today and what’s at stake now (everything) and what was at stake then (everything) and I start to walk onward, leaving the ladies behind, my pace quickening.