1998-2000: Starting the Project and Setting Goals

In June 1998, Dr. Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy heard about the Plaza of Heroines at Wichita State University during a panel at the National Women’s Studies Association. The Wichita State Plaza had raised $500,000; half of these funds went towards construction costs and the remainder went to an endowment for the university’s Women’s Studies department. 

As head of the Department of Women’s Studies at the University of Arizona, Kennedy was intrigued by the idea of creating a similar monument to women at the UA. In the fall of 1998, she presented information about the Wichita State Plaza of Heroines to the Women’s Studies Advisory Council (WOSAC), a community advisory board that supported Women’s studies by raising funds and networking. The WOSAC members liked the idea immediately. In February 1999 WOSAC met with Dorothy Miller from Wichita State to learn about the development of the Wichita Plaza. From that point on WOSAC members began to imagine their own version of a plaza at the UA, with a unique design and on a larger scale. They set a substantial fundraising goal in keeping with Tucson’s long tradition of supporting the UA Women’s Studies program. 

Under the leadership of WOSAC President Cathy Mendelsohn, and with the help of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences’ (SBS) development officer Steve Harvath, WOSAC worked for over a year to identify the right women to spearhead a campaign to build a monument to Arizona’s women. Initially WOSAC envisioned the project being headed by a single person; however, the women interested in the project proposed a co-chair structure for the project leadership. They suggested that such a structure offered a less hierarchical model of work and would allow the women to share tasks and keep the work-load manageable. 

In time the project had six co-chairs who agreed to rotate the position of chair every six months. The co-chairs consisted of distinguished Tucson citizens Jennifer Aviles, Betsy Bolding, Sally Drachman Salvatore, Margy McGonagill, Patricia Taylor, and Laurel Wilkining. This group was later joined by Anna Jolivet, and all remained with the project for five years until the dedication. More than half of the original co-chairs continued to work on the Plaza through the dedication of the computer kiosk with honoree’s life histories in 2009. Because this kind of steady commitment is rare in a group of volunteers, it is a testament to their love of the project. 

The co-chairs had to work on a variety of fronts to launch the project, and they moved forward with the support of Steve Harvath; Pat Hnilo, the Program Coordinator of Women’s Studies; Jo-Ann Troutman, Business Manager of Women’s Studies; and Dr. Kennedy. One of the first steps was identifying a physical site for the Plaza. From the beginning, UA Facilities Design and Construction was immensely supportive. The co-chairs viewed several possible sites offered by Ed Galda of Facilities Design and Construction, and the site west of Centennial Hall was the unanimous choice. This site offered substantial space and visibility; furthermore, the co-chairs were delighted by the idea of transforming an underutilized and untidy area of the University into a monument to women’s accomplishments. 

Shortly after the site was selected, the project team learned that a memorial stone to Frances Willard, a brilliant nineteenth-century leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, had been placed in one corner of the lot in 1926. The chance to refurbish her overgrown memorial offered extra assurance that the team had chosen the right spot. After completing paper work to officially obtain the site, the project was underway. 

The co-chairs met with Ken Foster, head of UA Presents, and John Olsen, head of the Department of Anthropology. Since their facilities bordered the site of the Plaza, it was important to ascertain ways that they and the Plaza could support each other’s missions and goals. In time a representative from both of these neighboring units joined the Plaza’s Design and Construction Committee. 

Simultaneously, Women’s Studies and the co-chairs sought to identify landscape architects to design the project. A competition for the design was initially considered; however, WOSAC suggested contacting Margaret West, a local landscape designer. West agreed to do the design pro bono on the condition that she could put together a team of women to work with her. West’s commitment to cooperative work models made her an ideal choice for the job. Her team consisted of Libba Wheat, Karen Novak, and Lori Woods. All of these women were part of thriving businesses in Tucson and all had been born and raised in Tucson, giving them deep roots in the community. 

The landscape architects met with a subgroup of the co-chairs in July 2000. The subgroup conveyed their hope that the Plaza space would have its own integrity; they wanted the Plaza to provide a place for peaceful contemplation and to convey a sense of sanctuary. They also wanted the space to be highly visible to visitors and the public. The landscape architects were excited by the creative possibilities of the job. Two months later they presented the co-chairs with an inspiring vision. Working with the distinct features of the site—the vegetation and historical features that needed to be preserved, and the utilities and drainage that needed to be maintained—they envisioned the space as having three distinct plazas: North, Center and South. Drawing on the writing of psychologist Jean Shinoda Bolen, these plazas would symbolize the phases of a woman’s life: The north side of the project would denote Maid (youth); the center would denote Matron (maturity); and the south side would denote Crone (seniority). Each stage would be represented by different design elements. The design was received with spontaneous applause and a sense that the plan had greatly surpassed expectations. 

At the same time, the design gave the co-chairs their first insight into the complexities of coordinating this multi-faceted project. The project was not intended to be simply an art piece; it was a fundraising endeavor as well. Those on the project with experience in fundraising expressed a concern that culturally negative attitudes about aging women would inhibit sales of something that used the word “crone.” They also were concerned about specifically naming each plaza after a stage in life as the number of people willing to honor someone in the Crone or elder section might be limited. The co-chairs asked the landscape architects to rethink their language. 

With the project’s fundraising component, the expense of the proposed design was also a concern. These issues were the first of many situations that honed the co-chairs’ abilities to listen to one another and work towards mutually satisfactory solutions. Articulating their concerns, the co-chairs gave the landscape architects the approval to keep developing their plans. Two months later the landscape architects made a second presentation in which they offered a refined version of the initial ideas—now with the three life phases labeled Entry, Gathering and Reflection—and a further developed plan for the architectural elements of each area. They also created a beautiful colored conceptual design for the space that went on to represent the Plaza for the next five years and which still appears on promotional brochures. 

Before plans were finalized, the amount of money the co-chairs aimed to raise for building the Plaza and endowing Women’s Studies changed frequently; however, the amount was never less than $750,000. This amount was substantially more than Women’s Studies had ever raised before, and was perhaps the biggest fundraising attempt ever by a women’s studies program nationally. Furthermore, this amount increased dramatically once the cost of building the Plaza was settled. The needed fundraising catapulted Women’s Studies into the mainstream of the university as a department that all major donors should seriously consider, thereby marking a historic moment for the department and the field of women’s studies. Similarly, the subject matter of Women’s Studies -- discussions of equality for women, of the literary and historical contributions of women, of the construction of social hierarchies, and of multiple and fluid identities— took a big step toward becoming a legitimate part of the UA curriculum. This is important to note because only a year earlier in March 1999 a number of state legislators had proposed cutting completely the funding for all four women’s studies programs statewide. 

All the co-chairs and UA Women’s Studies faculty and staff were aware of these challenges, but they rarely discussed the obstacles for building and marketing the Plaza. Instead, with consummate tact and creativity the project team worked to find common ground with potential major donors through the idea of honoring women. As accomplished women—successful executives, administrators, managers, and fundraisers—they had extensive experience with such endeavors in their personal and professional lives, and they were now committed to obtaining similar results for a larger cause. Fortuitously, the year 2000 saw the launching of Campaign Arizona, which welcomed all fundraising, giving the project the opportunity to slowly gain the active support of the UA Foundation. 

In doing this early work, the co-chairs, Women’s Studies faculty and staff, and WOSAC board members spread the word about the Plaza and identified people who might be interested in working on the project. They understood that making the Plaza a reality would require the help and contributions of people beyond the core team. A number of people stepped forward to attend Plaza meetings and became part of an expanded leadership team. This expanded team included Edie Auslander, who later joined the Executive Committee, Ann Boice, Esther Capin, Kathleen Escalada, Marilyn Heins, John Huerta, Sharon Kha, and Jamalle Karam Simon. Their input was essential in guiding the co-chairs. 

Early on the Plaza received a lead gift from Laurel Wilkening of over $100,000. Each co-chair contributed as generously as possible, as did other members of the leadership team and Women’s Studies faculty and staff. These funds served as the base from which to approach other donors. The leadership team began generating lists of potential donors; it also looked at possible grants, with the first one coming from the Amazon Foundation. By the end of 2000 the Plaza had raised $150,000. 

To be effective in fundraising, the project needed a name, a mission statement, and publicity materials. The mission statement was a logical genesis from the three goals for the Plaza: to honor women in perpetuity; to beautify the campus; and to raise an endowment for Women’s Studies. The co-chairs took direction from the Department of Women’s Studies as to the priorities of what the money would be used for: scholarships and research stipends; staff for the Southwest Institute for Research on Women (SIROW) community projects; and funding for visiting scholars. 

Finding an appropriate name for the project proved more challenging. The leadership team did not want to use the name employed by Wichita State—Plaza of Heroines—and after experimenting, they decided on the Women’s Plaza of Honor. However, when the landscape architects presented the plan with three plazas, the leadership team decided to change the name to the Women’s Path of Honor to express a woman’s movement through the phases of life. However, by the end of 2000 the leadership team voted to return to the name of Women’s Plaza of Honor as it best fit the goals and mission of the project. 

By October 2000 there were enough publicity materials for the Plaza to have a presence at UA’s homecoming celebration. As a visual image for the Plaza was not yet available, Pat Hnilo placed some mock columns from the theater department on the Mall to create public awareness. 

Although the Plaza aims to honor all women, the co-chairs wanted to ensure that women of Arizona—from the most celebrated to the most humble—were fully represented. By the end of 2000 the co-chairs were identifying women who they felt should be included in the Plaza, with the aim of encouraging members of the women’s families or other supportive donors to honor them. Wilkening had modeled this process by honoring the women who came to Arizona in the 1540 Cibola Expedition. 

The committee structure grew organically from all these initial tasks. The leadership team designated sub-committees for Design and Construction, Fundraising, Publicity, and History; each sub-committee was led by one of the co-chairs. Meanwhile the leadership team was in the process of transitioning into the Executive Committee. This committee included the initial co-chairs and key university employees, and was responsible for the final decision making about the Plaza. 

Members of the amorphous leadership team were welcome to be Executive Committee members, but also were encouraged to join and contribute to sub-committees. Taylor, a retired executive at Raytheon Missile Systems, provided charts throughout the process that mapped the leadership structure. These charts helped identify workflow and needs, allowing for an easy division of labor and the recruitment of new members to the sub-committees. The Executive Committee met approximately every three weeks to oversee the direction of the project and to coordinate the work of the sub-committees, which also met about every three weeks. This structure developed and managed all aspects of the Plaza project. Through this cooperative model the project team was able to pay attention to every detail while also moving steadily towards the larger goals.