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A Woman To Know: Meet Marie Stuart EdwardsMay, 2021
A Woman To Know: Meet Marie Stuart Edwards
ReDiscover Downtown Peru Announces Woman Sculptor Cindy Billingsley for Commissioned Bronze Statue of Hoosier Suffrage Leader
Peru, April 12, 2021 — In a rural Midwestern town 75 miles north of Indianapolis, women’s history is being made again. A little over 100 years ago, suffragist Marie Stuart Edwards organized thousands of women from Peru, Indiana, to fight for their right to vote and then realize their new role as first-time voters after the 19th Amendment’s ratification. Today, a woman — Tennessean sculptor Cindy Billingsley — has been commissioned to design a life-size bronze statue of Marie Stuart Edwards on the grounds of Peru’s Carnegie library. When unveiled on August 26, 2021, the Marie Stuart Edwards statue will be the third historical marker and public artwork placed this summer to commemorate Hoosiers’ contributions to the right to vote.
There are very few statues commemorating women’s suffrage in the United States, and even fewer crafted by women sculptors. Ms. Billingsley has a unique task. The local Main Street organization ReDiscover Downtown Peru and historic preservation groups Miami County Indiana Worth Remembering and Daughters of the American Revolution have asked Ms. Billingsley to bring Marie Stuart Edwards’ role in the suffrage movement to life for the next generation of women voters. In fact, the life-size bronze statue will feature the likeness of Marie Stuart Edwards as a 12-year-old girl with her bicycle on the way to the library.
The bicycle has long been associated with the suffrage movement because it symbolized women’s freedom of movement and style. It is this spirit of self-reliance and independence that the statue will capture to honor Marie Stuart Edwards and suffragists at the Peru Public Library where they first began meeting in 1914.
As local lore goes, child Marie Stuart was the first girl in her hometown of Lafayette, Indiana, to ride a bicycle. Who Marie grew up to be is nothing less than remarkable. After moving to Peru with her husband and son, Mrs. Marie Stuart Edwards organized suffragists for the 19th Amendment’s final push, all the while keeping the young family’s business going through the pandemic and World War I. In February 1920, she helped found the National League of Women Voters, serving as the association’s first-ever treasurer and then vice-president. After the massive voter registration drive, she would move the national headquarters to Peru. Training was at the heart of suffragist Marie’s strategy. To cast a ballot in their first election meant women would need a trusted source of information in order to make decisions when they did finally go to the polls. Women from all over the country traveled to Peru to learn to be speakers for the movement, then returned to their hometowns to provide education about voting and issues important to America’s newest citizens.
The 18-month statue project is already evoking strong emotion in the community as residents learn more about Marie Stuart Edwards (1880-1970) and plans for a public dedication in August. Ms. Billingsley acknowledges this: “What I hope women in particular will see when they visit this statue is what one woman can accomplish in her hometown, her state, and her country. We women must remember other countries are inspired by us and young girls should be inspired to make a difference. That’s what this statue of a 12-year-old girl with a bicycle represents — hope — if Marie accomplished this, what can we accomplish next.”
Ms. Billingsley’s portfolio was one of five reviewed in December 2020 by a 14-member artist selection committee representing the arts, historic preservation, small business and entrepreneurs, economic development, and schools from Miami County.
One of the committee members, Ms. Heidi Wright, Miami County’s Director of Development at the Northern Indiana Community Foundation, has devoted her career to ending women’s oppression and violence against women. “The way we make change — real change — is to teach our children how to be resilient and successful. Civics is a lot like learning how to ride a bicycle. Once you master the skill, you are empowered and you take it with you all of your life.”
The project’s fundraising chairwoman Ms. Missy Edwards Ward points to recent statues such as Monumental Women and Maggie L. Walker as inspiration to draw women and girls to Peru for a road trip. She hopes that their journey to visit Marie’s statue inspires them to honor the women in their own families who voted for the first time.
“Indiana Lt. Governor Suzanne Crouch and Ms. Keira Amstutz, President and CEO of Indiana Humanities, have given us an incredible platform to lift up women’s voices from the past and connect with their stories. Generations of women have made sacrifices. Marie Stuart Edwards understood that future generations would need to be reminded. Marie worked over the next four decades for social reform and exemplified civic duty,” Ms. Ward said, reflecting on the launch of the Meet Marie campaign.
“I imagine mothers and daughters, their granddaughters, aunts and nieces, best friends standing in front of Marie and her bicycle talking about what suffrage means to them. I do exercise my right to vote. Girls become voters. That’s Marie’s legacy — and now Cindy’s, too.”
This project received support from a Preserving Women’s Legacy Grant, a program of the Indiana Women’s Suffrage Centennial presented by Indiana Humanities and the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs through funding from the state of Indiana. The $35,000 award to ReDiscover Downtown Peru is being matched by individual and corporate contributors. Hoosier foundry Sincerus of Indianapolis will cast the statue in bronze.
Peru is one of three Hoosier communities to receive the Preserving Women’s Legacy Grant, along with Angola and Michigan City.