In 1619, the Virginia Company of London had to import a batch of brides to keep the Jamestown colony afloat. This was the first public recognition of the indispensability of women to the fabric of society in Virginia. Another one has come in recent months, in the form of a new monument in Richmond to honor contributions of women. Between those two events lie 400 years of history and thousands of individual women who left their marks on their communities.
“We didn’t necessarily choose the most famous women,” said Sandra Treadway, librarian of Virginia. “We looked for women who would collectively represent the range of experiences in Virginia—not a comprehensive representation, but one that would suggest it and would inspire.”
The monument is the only one in the nation exclusively dedicated to women that is also placed prominently on statehouse grounds. It’s situated in Capitol Square next to other monuments—its prominence was something the late Em Bowles Alsop insisted upon when she first spearheaded the initiative in 2009.
Alsop was herself a remarkable woman, having worked in public relations for Pan Am and as an assistant to actress Helen Hayes.
Together with a group of close friends who had the sense that they had known many women who had made significant contributions but weren’t recognized, she approached her state senator, who introduced a bill to designate a monument “in a place where it couldn’t be ignored,” according to Treadway.
Though not completed, the monument is open for public viewing. Visitors today will see a granite plaza featuring a glass wall that’s inscribed with the names of 230 women. The names come from each of the four centuries, from Accomack to Arlington to Amherst Counties, and from walks of life ranging from tribal leadership to social reform to entrepreneurship.
Visitors in the future will be able to walk among 12 bronze statues of other notable women, including Maggie Walker and Martha Washington, and see them eye to eye. That was something a focus group recommended: a monument that did not have anyone up on a pedestal, but showed them as they were in life. The slow rate of progress is because the monument is being privately funded, and the Women’s Monument Commission hopes that all funds will be raised and all statues completed (by the Brooklyn firm that was awarded the contract) by Oct. 14, the scheduled dedication.
Though anyone could put forth a name for consideration, the Library of Virginia did much of the nominating and research. A nominee had to spend a substantial portion of her life and make her significant contribution here in Virginia, and her efforts were considered against a historical backdrop to determine what would be considered outstanding for the time.
Six women from the Fredericksburg region made the list, though the glass wall has space for more names to be added in the future.
Dorothy Roy of Caroline County held the twin distinctions of being the only woman in the colonies to own a tobacco warehouse, and the first woman in Virginia to be granted a license to operate a tavern. The warehouse and a ferry operation passed to her when her husband died, and it is for the Roys that Port Royal was named. Dorothy and her tavern were at the center of business in Port Royal.
Well-educated, erudite and powerful, Mary Berkeley Minor Bradford was an outspoken opponent of slavery. She organized the Fredericksburg chapter of the American Colonization Society in 1829, which supported the transport of freed slaves back to Africa. Later, frustrated by the public’s apathy toward slavery and colonization, she changed the chapter’s focus to education of women in Liberia.
Also a supporter of the colonization movement, Judith Lomax of Caroline County was the first woman in Virginia to publish a book of poetry on her own. “Notes of an American Lyre” was published in 1813 and dedicated to Thomas Jefferson, at whose home she had stayed as a guest. Lomax was a woman of deep faith, and although she worked to rebuild the Episcopal Church in America after the Revolutionary War, she wrote of a day when all Christians would be united without denominations.
Jean Moncure Wood
Jean Moncure Wood of Stafford County was also a talented poet, in addition to being well-educated, musically gifted and the wife of a governor of Virginia. But after the tragic death of her only child and that of her husband, she wrote a second act for her own life. She founded the Female Humane Society in Richmond in 1807, dedicated to helping impoverished women and children.
Lucy Ann White Cox
Lucy Ann White Cox of Fredericksburg was one of many women of the Civil War known as “vivandières.” Ten years older than her husband, James, she followed him to war when he enlisted in the 30th Virginia in April 1861. In her role as “daughter of the regiment,” she cooked, washed clothes and provided nursing on the battlefield. When Cox died in 1891, the local Confederate Veterans association held an elaborate funeral and placed a marker at her grave.
Daphne Dailey was originally from Arkansas, but she left her mark on Caroline County. As co-owner and editor of the Caroline Progress newspaper from 1936 to 1947, she used her position to advocate for the improvement of the county, including a public health unit, a cannery and Caroline’s future in general. For her efforts, she received an award from the Virginia Press Association and later became its first female president.
Wendy Migdal, a teacher at Spotsylvania County’s Ni River Middle School, is a freelance writer in Fredericksburg.