Notable Women of Boston Mural Moves from Simmons to the State House
Created in 1980, Ellen Lanyon's Notable Women of Boston mural has been a fixture at Simmons and other prominent Boston institutions for over thirty years. In light of the long-term renovations in progress at Simmons, the mural was recently installed at the Massachusetts State House.
On December 15, 2022, the Massachusetts State House installed a beloved artwork in the corridor adjacent to the Gallery of the House Chambers. Notable Women of Boston by American artist Ellen Lanyon (1926-2013) was commissioned by the Workingmen's Cooperative Bank in 1980, and became part of the Simmons University art collection in 1985. Simmons is currently loaning the mural to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, State House Art Commission, on a long-term basis.
This large-scale work, comprised of two panels that, when conjoined, measure 14 x 7 feet, depicts historical women who were trailblazers in religious freedom, environmental science, literature, civil rights, and beyond. Lanyon later created a companion piece to accompany the mural, which consists of cameo sketches of each woman accompanied by written descriptions of them, and it is also being displayed at the State House.
Donna Graham-Stewartson, Director of Operations at Simmons' Gwen Ifill College, oversaw the installation. She notes that this painting "aligns with Simmons' commitment to honoring diversity and empowering women." In March 2000, The Boston Globe reported that the Simmons community adored Lanyon's mural. Then displayed in Bartol Hall, diners reflected on the significance of the painting and the lives of the women in it.
Helen Popinchalk, Professor of Art and Curator of the University Art Collection, explains that the mural will be loaned to the State House on a long-term, but not permanent, basis. "I'm looking forward to finding a new home for the mural on campus when One Simmons [a plan to combine both Simmons campuses] construction is complete," she says.
Over the years, Notable Women of Boston has attracted the attention of numerous Boston institutions and organizations, including the Boston Women's Heritage Trail (BWHT), an organization founded in 1989 that preserves the history of local women. In the words of Mary Smoyer, a BWHT board member and retired Boston public school teacher, Lanyon's artwork encapsulates women's unique contribution to progress and advocacy.
"This mural is really amazing. It spans 400 years of women's history," remarks Smoyer.
"Anne Hutchinson [1591-1643] stands for religious freedom, which is so important in our country. Phillis Wheatley [1753-1784] is the mother of African American literature. Sister Ann Alexis [1805-1875] represents all the women who went into sisterhood and devoted their lives to the poor and education. Lucy Stone [1818-1893] is an incomparable abolitionist and suffragist. Mary Baker Eddy [1821-1910] founded a religion, which is very unusual for a woman, and understood the importance of the mind-body connection. Ellen Richards [1842-1911] is a very early pioneering environmentalist. Mary Morton Kehew [1859-1918] worked tirelessly to advance the rights of working women. Anne Sullivan [1866-1936], who is pictured with Helen Keller, stands for the triumph of people with disabilities. Melnea Cass [1896-1978] was an incredible community activist, in Roxbury and nationally."
Interestingly, three of the women who appear in the mural have a direct connection to Simmons. Mary Morton Kehew served on the Simmons College Corporation (akin to today's Board of Trustees) from 1900 to 1918. Ellen Richards, the first woman to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, taught at Simmons from 1902 to 1903. Civil rights leader Melnea Cass received an honorary degree from Simmons in 1971.
History Professor Laura Prieto featured the Notable Women of Boston mural in the digital library exhibition she co-curated on women's suffrage activism at Simmons. "Most of the women that Ellen Lanyon depicted fought for equal voting rights – not just suffrage leader Lucy Stone, but several others too," explains Prieto. "For instance, Helen Keller participated in protest marches and advocated for women's suffrage in her public speeches. Melnea Cass worked avidly for voter access; in 1920, she helped get Black women in her community registered to vote for the first time. The mural is a sort of group portrait across time; linking these women together makes us realize how important it was to keep passing the torch, from one generation to the next."
For Michelle Jenney, a former president of BWHT who has researched Lanyon's mural since the 1980s, the artist's naturalistic style helps bring these women to life. "These look like real women," says Jenney. "They are not abstract. Lanyon made them into real people you can recognize. I like figurative art in general, and these women are telling a story."
Jenney also admires the details that Lanyon inserted in the piece. "We see their implements – like the tool kit of scientist Ellen Swallow Richards, Anne Sullivan with her student Helen Keller, and the dignified pose of Melnea Cass. Behind the figures there are familiar locales of Boston," she explains. "It is feminist art because it shows women achieving something, not just set in a pose looking pretty and honoring beauty instead of the beauty of accomplishment." Having worked at MIT for close to twenty years, Jenney cites Ellen Swallow Richards as her favorite image in the mural. "As the first female student allowed to take courses at MIT, she began the field of ecology, health, and safety in the kitchen, and scientific examinations related to food and food storage. Every time I take a drink of water, I thank her."
While on view at the State House, Boston residents and visitors from all over the world will learn about the extraordinary accomplishments of the nine women pictured in Lanyon's artwork. "The mural depicts women who are important to Boston's history, but their importance goes beyond the domain of the city or the state," says Jenney. "The Massachusetts State House is a place not only for government workers but citizens and visitors alike. My hope is that the tour guides will help make this mural a focal point for visitors."
Lanyon's surviving children, Lisa and Andrew Ginzel, are delighted that their mother's work is receiving new attention. They look forward to visiting Notable Women of Boston in its current location.
The timing of the State House installation is especially meaningful, as Maura Healey recently became the first female governor of the state of Massachusetts.
The State House offers on-site tours of the building and its collections from 10:00am to 3:30pm. Consult their website for more details.