Kim Thomas, the product of a line of strong women, didn’t hesitate when she heard about the Bench of the Matriarchs project associated with the Celebrating Suffrage monument planned for Ned Shepler Park.
The bench, one of four initially planned, is second of a three-phase project to create life-sized bronze statues of five women, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a circle, as they illustrate the diversity of those who fought for the right to vote and for civil rights. The initial brainchild of local community activist Barbara Curry, the project has grown to encompass numerous organizations and residents who are determined to see the project completed, Curry said with a laugh.
Phase one, the lights to illustrate the monument site, was dedicated in August 2020. Phase two, benches for visitors, will be dedicated at multiple times, beginning April 11 with the bench featuring the names of prominent women organizations in Lawton and 16 individuals. While every bench is important, Curry is especially pleased with the idea behind the second one: the Bench of Matriarchs she intends to install in August, on the 101th anniversary of women winning the right to vote.
The idea of a matriarchal bench evolved from initial plans for Valentine’s Day, crafted during one of numerous discussions supporters have had about projects and fundraisers for what they estimate will be a $120,000 project to turn designs by Tulsa sculptor Denise Ford into the only monument in Oklahoma dedicated to the suffragette movement.
Curry said the proposal for a matriarch bench was an “aha” moment that made perfect sense, given the number of strong women who have and continue to work to make Lawton-Fort Sill what it is.
“I knew as soon as I heard it,” Thomas said about her financial pledge toward the bench. “I knew I wanted to be part of it.”
Thomas said her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother each were strong role models, and she vividly remembers that as a child, her mother always took her along when she went to vote.
“I’d go with her, holding her hand,” Thomas said, explaining she knew the importance of voting from an early age because her mother made that point. “She taught me.”
Thomas said she is donating to the project in memory of the females in her family and she already knows what she wants engraved on the bench base her donation is funding: Women Inspiring Women. And she loves the idea of a mother and daughter, sitting on that bench, looking up at the statues and reading their history.
Curry said that educational component, in the form of explanatory plaques, is an important part of the monument because of the history they will explain to those who may not be familiar with the story of the right to vote movement or the fight for civil rights. Curry said she can draw personal experience — she vividly remembers her mother’s civil rights activities from her childhood in Philadelphia — but she knows not everyone has that background.
“The education part of this is important,” Thomas said, agreeing the educational aspect of the monument will draw not only Lawtonians, but others to Ned Shepler Park.
That’s why Curry likes the idea of the matriarch bench, which she believes will bring numerous Lawtonians into the project as they record the history of the women in their families. Curry has insisted from the beginning that the monument be a community project reflective of Lawton-Fort Sill women, and participating today can affect families years from now.
“I see her name on this bench,” she said, of families who will visit the site.
Bench number one, to be dedicated April 11, will showcase the names of nine prominent women’s organizations, while number two, set for dedication Aug. 18, is the Bench of the Matriarchs. Benches three and four will be the “community circle” benches, comprised of community members.
Donations serve two purposes. While they will pay for the granite benches, funds available beyond that cost will become seed money, local matching funds Women that VOTE Arts Corporation will use in its quest to seek corporate funding for phase three, the monument.
Curry and her supporters have tentative plans for other activities, to include a contest to decide the women who will become the faces of the five bronze statues: Caucasian, African American, Native American, Asian and Hispanic women. The plan is to craft the statues with lifelike features, wearing clothing representing their ethnicity or the era in which they were active.