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‘Breaking the bronze ceiling’ in Central Park

Weirton native plays role in Monumental Women’s effort to have statue honoring three women’s rights pioneers

LOOKING FORWARD TO UNVEILING — Women’s rights advocate Namita Luthra of New York City, a Weirton native, is part of a nonprofit called Monumental Women. It is the catalyst behind a monument to honor three women’s rights pioneers — Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton — that will be unveiled Aug. 26 in Central Park on what is the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. -- Contributed

Weirton native Namita Luthra was home for a visit in mid-March, a time when she had hoped to speak to two local groups about a project important to her.

But COVID-19 precautionary measures put into place brought cancellations first to the March 16 meeting of the Literary Department of the Weirton Woman’s Club, then the March 19 gathering for the Wintersville Woman’s Club.

Hopefully, Aug. 26 is a date that comes off without a hitch.

That’s when a monument honoring three women’s rights pioneers will be unveiled in Central Park — a first, given there are 23 statues of historical figures in the park, but not one that honors a woman.

The statue was conceived, created and funded by Monumental Women, an all-volunteer-led nonprofit made up of women’s rights advocates, historians and community leaders.

A rendering of the monument honoring three women’s rights pioneers — Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton — that will be unveiled Aug. 26 in Central Park -- Contributed

Among them is Luthra, the daughter of Drs. Sucheta and J.K. Luthra of Weirton.

“The monument of Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton will be the first to honor women in New York City’s Central Park’s 167-year history,” notes Luthra in an e-mail communication. “It will be unveiled on Aug. 26, the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment’s ratification. It will be a great celebration for the nation and New York City.”

The unveiling also comes during a year that marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Susan B. Anthony. All three women were not only women’s rights pioneers, but New Yorkers, too.

Luthra serves as a director with Monumental Women, which was established in 2014 with an initial goal to “break the bronze ceiling” and create the first statue of real women in the park whose female offerings are limited to Alice in Wonderland, Mother Goose, Juliet with Romeo, witches, nymphs and angels, according to Monumental Women’s website.

Its other goals are cited as “increasing awareness and appreciation of women’s history through a nationwide education campaign and challenging municipalities across the country to rethink the past and reshape the future by including tributes in their public spaces to the diverse women who helped create and inspire those cities.”

Sculptor Meredith Bergmann works on Susan B. Anthony in the studio of her Connecticut home. -- Contributed

“I will definitely be at the Aug. 26 unveiling,” notes Luthra, envisioning that the “end of August in New York City I hope will be safe — especially since this is an outdoor event in Central Park.”

Monumental Women began working to develop the statue and secure a prominent location on Central Park’s famed Literary Walk in 2014, according to an Oct. 21, 2019, press release on its website announcing the approval of the statue’s preliminary design. The organization raised $1.5 million in private funding to pay for the statue, which is being designed by nationally recognized sculptor Meredith Bergmann.

“It’s fitting that the first statue of real women in Central Park depicts three New York women who dedicated their lives to fighting for women’s rights,” Pam Elam, president of Monumental Women, is quoted in the release. She adds, “This statue conveys the power of women working together to bring about revolutionary change in our society. It invites people to reflect not just on these women and their work for equality and justice, but on all the monumental women who came before us.”

“I respect the work of all three women because they each brought particular gifts to the task of expanding women’s roles and advancing women’s rights,” Luthra responded in an e-mail communication from the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times. “I like how they are working together around a wood table which is how so much of women’s rights work has gotten done, through mutual respect and collaboration. Although women’s rights history has been complicated, the work is at its best when we make sure to include diverse voices,” she continued.

“The sculptor has created three women sitting at a table. Sojourner Truth is talking, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton is writing and Susan B. Anthony, the only one standing, is about to go off or has just come in from giving her many talks — it represents the three arms of activism,” noted Luthra, a woman’s rights advocate who graduated from Madonna High School in 1987.

Namita Luthra’s daughter, Jaya Shri, is shown with Monumental Women Board President Pam Elam in March 2018. A women’s rights advocate, Namita Luthra learned about the work of Monumental Women through newspaper articles about Girl Scout troops in New York City raising money for the statue. “I took the idea to my daughter’s Girl Scout troop, and they too wanted to sell Girl Scout cookies to raise money for Monumental Women. They donated $2,000, attended events and eventually met the sculptor, Meredith Bergmann,” Luthra explained. -- Contributed

“There was an expectation that I would go into medicine like my parents, but I didn’t want to go in that direction,” she explained. “When I was a little girl, I loved astronomy and wanted to be an astronomer. By high school and then college, I knew I wanted to go into law. Starting in 1989 in college, I knew that women’s rights work was what moved me, and from then on, I’ve focused almost exclusively on that. I started by working at what was then called ‘battered women’s’ shelters, first in Pittsburgh and then later in Boston. After earning a law degree at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, I moved to New York City, where I live now with my husband and two children.”

Since 2012, she has served on the President’s Council of the New York Hall of Science that reaches the most diverse audience of any science museum in the country. Through the council, Luthra advises on public initiatives that promote STEM learning for young women and girls and on groundbreaking exhibitions and science education. STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Luthra served on the board of directors for Sakhi for South Asian Women, a nonprofit organization that works to end violence against women and in its nearly 30-year history has served 10,000 South Asian women in the New York area. She was a senior staff attorney at the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. There, she spearheaded a wide range of litigation, advocacy and public education efforts to advance the rights of women and girls, including co-authoring a book called “The Rights of Women” and successfully litigating gender discrimination jury trials in federal court.

Prior to joining the Women’s Rights Project, Luthra was a staff attorney at the Office of the Appellate Defender, New York City’s longest-standing provider of appellate representation to indigent persons convicted of felonies. Before that, she served as the Karpatkin Fellow at the National Legal Department of the American Civil Liberties Union. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

She identified her work at the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union as among her most rewarding. “The Women’s Rights Project was founded in 1972 by Ruth Bader Ginsburg and works to advance women’s and girls’ rights through litigation, public education and advocacy,” noted Luthra.

“It was my dream job. I applied for it and got the position in 2001. While there, I won two federal employment discrimination jury trials, worked on many other cases around the country and co-authored a book called ‘The Rights of Women.'”

Luthra learned about the work of Monumental Women through newspaper articles about Girl Scout troops in New York City raising money for the statue.

“I took the idea to my daughter’s Girl Scout troop, and they too wanted to sell Girl Scout cookies to raise money for Monumental Women. They donated $2,000, attended events and eventually met the sculptor, Meredith Bergmann,” Luthra explained.

The monument — 14 feet tall and 36 tons — will be beautiful, according to Luthra.

“This work is important to me because representation matters,” Luthra said of her involvement with Monumental Women. “It’s essential for girls and boys to know about the contributions women have made to our country, women who dedicated their lives to winning the vote and expanding our definition of ‘We the People.’ Forty-two million people visit Central Park every year, and they deserve to see real women. In addition to ‘breaking the bronze ceiling,’ Monumental Women has an education campaign and a call to all municipalities across the country to honor women and people of color whose contributions are often overlooked.”

Even during the pandemic, the work of civil rights and women’s rights has to continue, according to Luthra.

“The more we can share Monumental Women’s work and encourage small towns and large cities to think about their own public monuments — to see who’s being honored and who’s not — the better.”

The sculptor of the women’s rights pioneers monument also has to her creative credit Boston’s Women’s Memorial and the Sept. 11 Memorial at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.

“Like the women I’m portraying, my work is meant to raise questions and to provoke thought,” Bergmann is quoted in the October 2019 release. “My hope is that all people, but especially young people, will be inspired by this image of women of different races, different religious backgrounds and different economic status working together to change the world.”

For information on Monumental Women visit www.monumentalwomen.org.

(Kiaski can be contacted at jkiaski@heraldstaronline.com.)

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