The Women Who Made New York: Restoring the Rightful Ratio of Remembrance
From artists to activists, an homage to the unheralded hands and hearts who built one of humanity’s most iconic cities.
By Maria Popova
“Names perpetuate the gendering of New York City,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in introducing her magnificent remapping of the NYC subway with stops named after notable women. “Almost every city,
she observed, “is full of men’s names, names that are markers of who wielded power, who made history, who held fortunes, who was remembered.” Somehow, although the gateway to this city of immigrants is guarded by a 300-foot woman, the women who entered its gates were not granted equal liberty to make a name for themselves even when they made equal and often unparalleled contributions.
In The Women Who Made New York (public library), longtime journalist Julie Scelfo sets out to reclaim the rightful proportions of remembrance by celebrating more than two hundred of the women without whom this poem of a city wouldn’t exist — women ranging from intellectual titans like Susan Sontag and Hannah Arendt to pioneering artists like Frida Kahlo and Berenice Abbott to society-shifting visionaries like Margaret Mead and Audre Lorde.
Among them are also innumerable unsung heroines like Emily Roebling, who taught herself physics, architecture, and engineering in order to finish the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge after her husband, the lead engineer, died of the bends mid-construction — women who, with the contrast between the unfamiliarity of their names and their momentous contributions to the city’s identity, jolt us into the awareness that history is not what happened but what was recorded and how those records reverberated across the body of culture over time.
Scelfo writes in the introduction:
For centuries New York has been the place where immigrants come in search of a better life. It’s also where individuals have been able to finally find themselves — or undertake complete reinvention.
While an endless number of writers, from Walt Whitman to Ada Calhoun, have tried to describe the miracle that is New York, I think Colson Whitehead singled out something essential when he wrote, two months after the World Trade Center attack: “There are eight million naked cities in this naked city.” He observed how “you start building your private New York the first time you lay eyes on it.” The coffee shop where you waited for a job interview. The drugstore where you buy gum and imported magazines. “Thousands of people pass that storefront every day, each one haunting the streets of his or her own New York, not one of them seeing the same thing.”
For every last straggler, New York has offered a unique blend of promise and despair, screaming skyscrapers and gritty sidewalks, Turkish coffee and Sichuan shrimp. The New York that exists in my mind and heart is the place where, during my first visit from Virginia at the age of twelve, I witnessed taxi drivers fighting in several languages, marveled at professional ballerinas in the Capezio store trying on pointe shoes, and, as I inhaled the funky smells and absorbed the cacophony, felt, for the first time, completely at home.
My New York was on Bleecker Street, where artists in slashed t-shirts peddled trash-sculptures; it was inside the Craft Caravan, where I bought African tribal jewelry; and it was the Spanish restaurant in SoHo where my groovy aunt shared our teeming plate of mussels with customers at the next table, infuriating the surly, chain-smoking waitress.
My New York also includes unexpected friendships with teachers and writers. Neil Postman, the acclaimed media critic, became a friend and mentor and, while I worked as his assistant, treated me to a year of lunches at Poppolini’s near NYU. It includes [the time] when, while touring a townhouse for sale in Park Slope, the realtor introduced me to the homeowner, Gloria Naylor, a writer whose work had torn open a chamber in my heart and filled it with love.
That’s really the best part of New York: how it’s filled with magic. Finding chalk sidewalk messages from De La Vega outside your apartment. A dead Christmas tree, deposited in a trash can, joyfully presiding over a snowy street corner. Bumping into Al Franken at the airport, who offers a ride home. The bulk foods guy at Sahadi’s Fine Foods handing my stroller-parked toddler his own bag of olives. Resonant chamber music from a neighbor’s cello wafting out in an open window. And watching the other tortured, twentysomething misfits grow up to win Pulitzers, run companies, and write Broadway shows.
In the rigorously researched and elegantly written biographical portraits comprising The Women Who Made New York, Scelfo goes on to reappoint the unsung makers of this irreplicable magic not only in the historical record where they belong but in the collective conscience, in the living awareness with which we perceive the cultural and civic reality of our daily lives. Complement it with Solnit’s indispensable atlas of New York’s untold stories, then revisit four centuries of great writers’ reflections on New York.
Published November 3, 2016