As the 100-year anniversary of the 19th Amendment approaches, a girl and her mother push for historical representation
In 2015, 9-year-old Sofia Bernstein was invited to the White House after she wrote a letter to President Barack Obama asking him why there weren’t any women depicted on U.S. currency.
Now, Sofia and her mother, Kim, have their sights set on honoring the women of Cambridge who worked to secure the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.
“It was shocking when I learned that in Cambridge we only have three statues that depict women, and none of them are real historical figures,” Sofia said at a June city council meeting. “Symbols matter, especially to kids. When we see something, we ask our parents ‘What is that?’ And if we don’t see any statues of women in Cambridge, how can we learn about what they did to make Cambridge great?”
Much like Obama, the council seemed impressed by Sofia and Kim’s initiative, and voted unanimously to have City Manager Louis A. Depasquale work with the Historical Commission, the Women’s Commission, and other departments to commission a public art piece, statue, or memorial commemorating the women in Cambridge who worked to pass the 19th Amendment.
Councilor Alanna Mallon says she has known the Bernstein family and been “inspired by Sofia for a long time.”
“The fact that she is now involved in this movement is so inspiring,” Mallon says. “To me, having someone so young, and so articulate, and so passionate about moving this issue of women in the community and making sure that women are visible and making sure that they are seen for their accomplishments, it gives me a lot of hope for the future.”
Mallon adds that it’s important for young women to see the women that came before them.
“Cambridge has a rich history of women’s political involvement, and the centennial of the 19th Amendment is the perfect time to honor their contributions,” Mallon says. “‘You can’t be what you can’t see’ is a phrase women often say, and currently Cambridge does not have a memorial or statue depicting a real, historical woman, that showcases the dedicated but often unseen work that women do.”
“I am excited about the possibility of this project to not only bring a new piece of public art to our city, but to also educate our residents and showcase a more complete version of our city’s history,” Mallon says.
Sofia’s mother, Kim, says she got the idea for the landmark after the current Treasury Department, under President Donald Trump, declined to commit to putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, according to the New York Times. The initiative was started by the Obama Administration, and the design of the new bill was scheduled to be released in 2020.
“We don’t even really know that it’s not going to happen,” Kim says. “But it’s just realizing that there’s a very good chance it may not.”
Kim says she reached out to Sarah Burks, preservation planner for the Cambridge Historical Commission, and other city officials to ask if anything was being planned for the centennial anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment in 2020.
Kim says she told officials, “We need to do something that is big.”
She had heard about an initiative to build more statues of women in New York City’s Central Park, which features 23 statues of men and none depicting real women, according to the Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Statue Fund. New York City Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver announced plans to build statues of Anthony and Stanton in Central Park in the coming years.
The imbalance stretches nationwide: As of February 2016, there were an estimated 5,193 statues depicting historic figures across the United States, according to the Smithsonian. Only 394 of them were of women.
“It’s not that this is happening in isolation,” Kim explains.
As for building a monument in Cambridge, Sofia told the council that she doesn’t think the city will have any trouble finding women worthy of the honor.
“When I wrote to President Obama, I gave him a long list of possible women for our money,” Sofia said. “And now, as we are planning to celebrate one hundred years of women’s right to vote, we are really lucky to have a long list of possible candidates for a statue of a woman from Cambridge who fought for this important right.”
Women in Cambridge were certainly active in the fight to earn the right to vote, Burks says. There were “a lot” of women from Cambridge involved in the suffrage movement, she adds, though the commission is still in the preliminary stages of researching their actual roles.
Some biographical information on the women involved in the movement has been compiled by the Cambridge Women’s Heritage Project, a database which recognizes and celebrates the accomplishments of women who lived in Cambridge from 1630 until today, according to the project’s website. The database contains profiles of more than 400 women and women’s organizations.
So far Burks has identified more than a dozen women listed in the database who were involved in the suffrage movement and is continuing to research their contributions.
Among the women profiled by the Heritage Project is Alice Stone Blackwell, a suffrage journalist and daughter of renowned suffragist Lucy Stone. Blackwell worked for her mother’s newspaper, Woman’s Journal, and edited and distributed a periodical collection of suffrage news articles known as the Woman’s Column. She also founded the Massachusetts League of Women Voters.
“She was a champion of women’s rights for many years, as well as, at one time, an associate editor of Ladies Home Journal,” the Heritage Project says. “She was involved with the National American Women’s Suffrage Association, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Women’s Trade Union League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the American Peace Society.”
She lived most of her life in Dorchester, but moved to Cambridge in 1936 and lived there until she died in 1950, according to the Heritage Project.
Florence Hope Luscomb was one of the first women to graduate with an architecture degree from MIT, according to the Heritage Project, and worked at the Boston Equal Suffrage Association. She started selling copies of the Woman’s Journal on Boston Common and giving speeches on suffrage throughout New England, and became one of the founding members of the League of Women Voters, according to the Heritage Project.
“Cambridge suffragists held rallies, knocked on doors, petitioned the city and the legislature, and led a grassroots movement for the cause, just as women in other towns were doing all across the country,” Burks says. “They brought in speakers from England and other parts of the U.S. to come and talk to Cambridge residents about it,” she adds.
The women “met for years in people’s homes,” Burks says. Then, around 1915, the Cambridge Political Equality Association and the Cambridge Woman Suffrage Association merged. They later became known as the Cambridge League of Women Voters.
That same year, the Cambridge Suffrage Headquarters opened at 177 Hampshire Street, Burks says. The building is now residential. The group later moved to 560 Massachusetts Ave. where the Central Square Target stands today.
“They really were such pioneers in the work that they [did] to bring that fundamental right to women,” Kim says.
The goal is to have the piece built and ready for display by the hundredth anniversary of the amendment’s passage on Aug. 18, 2020, Kim says.
Whenever the monument winds up being built, Councilor Dennis Carlone says he hopes the monument is more than just a plaque.
“I hope it is truly at the scale of what is being proposed,” Carlone says. “I realize it could be a beautiful plaque, and wouldn’t that be nice, but it should be a sculpture and it should represent all women.”
This story originally appeared in the Do Gooders, Key Players, and Game Changers issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.