Art, Activism, and More: How Women Have Influenced Central Park

Did you know one of Central Park’s most popular statues was created by a woman? Or that more than 100 women work in the Park today as architects, gardeners, groundskeepers, and more? In celebration of Women’s History Month, we highlight some important contributions by women who have helped make the Park a welcoming and thriving public space.

Building impressive works of art

Four significant statues in Central Park were sculpted by women—including one of the most photographed landmarks at the heart of the Park’s design. Angel of the Waters, also known as Bethesda Fountain, was created by New York artist Emma Stebbins. Dedicated in 1873, it was the first time a woman received a commission for a major public work in New York City.

In addition, the Burnett Fountain was sculpted by artist Bessie Potter Vonnoh—and it honors another woman, children’s book author Frances Eliza Hodgson Burnett. Sculptor Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington created the Park’s larger-than-life equestrian statue depicting Cuban patriot and author José Julián Martí. Standing near Martí is a statue of the military general Simon Bolivar, which was created by Sally James Farnham.

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The beloved Burnett Fountain in the Conservatory Garden was sculpted by artist Bessie Potter Vonnoh. It honors another woman, children’s book author Frances Eliza Hodgson Burnett.

In 2020, a new monument sculpted by a woman was added to the Mall. The Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument honors Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and their contributions to the advancement of women’s rights. It's the first statue in Central Park—and only the sixth in New York City—to portray historic women.

Advocating for the Park

Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger played a pivotal role at The New York Times for decades, beginning when her father, Adolph S. Ochs, became its publisher in 1896. She went on to become a staunch advocate for Central Park and for the vision of the Park’s designers, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. She used her family’s influence to condemn any plan that sought to relinquish the Park to commercial interests or deprive the public of its serene natural settings.

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Iphigene's Walk, between 77th and 79th Streets in the Ramble, is named for Central Park advocate, preservationist, and philanthropist Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger.

This included initiating efforts to restore areas of the Park such as the Ramble. She also helped secure the funding for Chess & Checkers House. A quarter-mile path between 77th and 79th Streets in the Ramble is named for Sulzberger. Those at the dedication ceremony for the named path recounted her “untiring efforts to enhance and beautify Central Park and parkland in all five boroughs.”

Establishing care and maintenance

In the 1970s and ‘80s, a devastating decline took its toll on the fragile Park. Meadows had become barren dustbowls; benches, lights, and playground equipment were broken; and the 100-year-old infrastructure was crumbling. The Park bred a careless, even abusive attitude as evidenced by unchecked amounts of garbage, graffiti, and vandalism.

Then, a turning point arrived. In 1979, Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, the director of a small advocacy group called the Central Park Task Force, was named the first Central Park Administrator. In 1980, two existing advocacy groups (including the Task Force) joined together to form the Central Park Conservancy in partnership with the City.

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Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, urban planner and author, was the first Central Park Administrator and founding president of the Central Park Conservancy.

The restorations that followed gradually fostered important social changes in public behavior that returned the sanctity of public space to Central Park and, ultimately, to New York City at large. Now, Central Park welcomes 42 million visitors each year and is responsible for more than $1 billion in annual economic activity and revenue for the City.

Contributing an iconic memorial

Strawberry Fields is a living memorial to the world-famous singer, songwriter, and peace activist John Lennon—and a bustling center for activity for locals and tourists alike. Yoko Ono, Lennon’s widow, donated the funds to refurbish the area and helped to create the beautiful spot that honors him.

Detail of the mosaic

With the support of Yoko Ono, Strawberry Fields was refurbished as a beautiful and peaceful landscape to honor her late husband, John Lennon. It’s home to the iconic Imagine mosaic, a gift from Naples, Italy.

During his career with the Beatles and in his solo work, Lennon’s music gave hope and inspiration for world peace. Many countries and cities contributed gifts and plants for the memorial, but Ono could choose only one of the most elaborate submissions for placement in the Park. She selected the iconic round black and white mosaic, donated by the city of Naples, Italy. It remains one of the Park’s most-visited landmarks.

Influencing the Park now

Women continue to make important contributions to Central Park today. The Conservancy’s Women’s Committee has contributed more than $200 million to improving the Park—and in 2018, Elizabeth W. Smith took the reins as President & CEO of the organization.

More than 100 women maintain and improve the Park each day as architects, gardeners, groundskeepers, visitor services representatives, fundraisers, volunteers, and more—including Historian Emerita Sara Cedar Miller. With more than 30 years at the organization, she is the longest-serving woman at the Conservancy.

Sara Cedar Miller

Historian Emerita Sara Cedar Miller first joined the Conservancy as a photographer. Since then, her role has evolved; today, she conducts extensive research on Central Park, lectures on its history, and has written award-winning books.

Throughout Women’s History Month, help us celebrate the women of the Park’s past and present. Share your favorite contributions from women in Central Park's history on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and tag @CentralParkNYC.