Amid criticism, Santa Clara County moving ahead on $5M women statue fund
Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez led efforts to allocate $5M for women's statues and monuments. Photo courtesy of Supervisor Cindy Chavez.

Santa Clara County is starting to dip into $5 million it set aside for monuments that celebrate women, but it’s unclear when the work might come to fruition and some critics say taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be spent on women statues.

The idea for the fund sparked while planning an International Women’s Day event last year, said Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who is leading efforts behind the endeavor.

The event celebrated a time in the 1970s when female leadership in Santa Clara County was at an all-time high. While searching for a site to host the event, a colleague said, “Where’s the women’s monument?” This got the wheels turning for Chavez and a couple months later, the Santa Clara Board of Supervisors unanimously approved allocating $5 million for women’s monuments.

“What a great question,” Chavez said in response to her colleague’s query. “We don’t have one. We don’t have a single gathering place that really honors women.”

Now, Chavez said, the county is set to release a request for proposal to find a consultant to lead the project.

But not everyone is happy with using public funding for the project. Opponents argue that the money could go toward services that help support women today — rather than memorialize women of the past.

“Five million is a substantial amount of money that can do good things for people in serious need,” said San Jose Planning Commissioner Pierluigi Oliverio.

The former San Jose councilman said taxpayer dollars could be better spent helping opioid addicts and severely mentally ill residents — two groups, he said, that could use more money and attention from county leaders. Oliverio says he isn’t opposed to women monuments, but believes government spending on them should be a low-priority given other concerns.

According to Chavez, half of the money is slated to go toward one large monument while the other half will be divided among each of the supervisorial districts. The idea is that the funds will be matched by an individual or municipality in each of those districts, added Chavez — stretching the funds to $10 million in total.

Chavez says the monuments could take the form of a statue or involve the renaming of a school, street or a park. An artistic element may be woven into the recognition as well. A group of residents will decide which women in Santa Clara County’s history will receive the honor, Chavez said.

“We really want this to come from the community,” Chavez said. “We want a broad cross-section of women because it’s taken a broad cross-section of women and men to build this community.”

Volunteers will be selected to weigh in after the county hires a consultant to guide the project.  “(We’re) really challenging the community to come forward through their local government,” she said.

In response to criticism that the public dollars should go toward providing services, instead of building monuments, Chavez says she doesn’t see it as an either-or equation. In addition to this project, she noted, the county last week devoted resources to support victims of domestic violence, human trafficking and sexual assault.

“It’s interesting to me that that’s even a question,” she said. “It’s not a question we ask relative to how we honor men. If we did, we would have no monuments.”

According to a 2016 Smithsonian article, less than 10 percent of all public statues nationwide depicting historical figures feature women and a national movement to garner more recognition of accomplished women is underway.

Chavez says she believes Santa Clara County is the first to set aside funds to recognize women this way.

“I think we’re the only one in the country,” she said.

Contact Carina Woudenberg at [email protected] or follow @carinaew on Twitter.

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