Looking Back at Our Losses; Looking Forward to Our Gains

Women’s Campaign Fund

Seating women at the table

In the center of Yale’s campus, the Women’s Table — a fountain sculpture created by renowned artist and architect Maya Lin — is cause for reflection. Lin’s work chronicles the number of female students registered each year since Yale’s inception in 1701.

The numbers start with a string of zeros, deep in the sculpture’s dark middle. With the passing of each year, they spiral out until they reach the edge of the table, where water streams.

The largest number on the table is 4,947. It’s the figure from 1992, the year before the sculpture was completed. Were the art to be updated today, that number for female enrollment would be 7,048 — eclipsing the male tally of 6,561.

The table continues to open.

Bearing witness to climate change

In New York City, Lin’s images loom largely, and eerily, against the lofty skyscrapers and lush greenery of Madison Square Park: a dense cluster of 49 cedar trees, 40 feet high. All dead.

Yes, dead. Culled from a stretch of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, they were killed by saltwater from rising sea levels tied to global warming.

The display of dead trees, deliberately transplanted, is her latest work of art called Ghost Forest — created to highlight the dangers of climate change. Opened May 10, 2021, the exhibit is a somber reminder of what we have lost, yet an inspiring message of what we can gain by choosing a different path.

The exhibit will end in the fall with a step toward a greener future: the planting of 1,000 native trees and shrubs in public parks throughout the city.

Breaking convention

Women’s Table and Ghost Forest are true to form with the themes of Lin’s 40-year career: looking back at our losses while looking forward to our gains.

She’s best known for her memorials to human loss. In Washington, DC, her Vietnam Veterans Memorial, described as a solemn gash in the earth, bears the names of some 58,000 soldiers who died in a war that deeply divided America.

In a blind competition, Lin beat out 1,420 proposals for the commission in 1981.

Much about her design broke convention and brought controversy. Her creation did not tower above the ground; it thrust into it. No white marble; just black granite. No faces; just names.

To add fuel to her critics’ fire, she was a woman. She was the daughter of Chinese immigrants. She was at the time not a practicing architect but a 21-year-old senior at Yale.

Yet she stood up for her work, successfully defending it before the U.S. Congress.

Creating a memorial to hope

In Montgomery, Alabama, another Lin creation, equally unconventional, marks another solemn gash in our nation’s history. The Civil Rights Memorial is a circular black-granite table, engraved with the names of martyrs to the cause. The history of the movement is shown in radiating lines.

“I am always trying to find a balance between these opposing forces, finding the place where opposites meet. . .existing not on either side but on the line that divides.”

Water comes up from the table’s center and flows across its top. Behind the table on a curved wall are the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “[We will not be satisfied] until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Lin envisioned the memorial to be a contemplative experience, not only in honoring those who lost their lives in the Civil Rights struggle but also in appreciating how far we have come in our quest for equality. “This is not a monument to suffering,” she said. “It is a memorial to hope.”

Finding the place where opposites meet

“I feel I exist on the boundaries,” Lin said. “Somewhere between science and art, art and architecture, public and private, east and west…. I am always trying to find a balance between these opposing forces, finding the place where opposites meet… existing not on either side but on the line that divides.”

In reflecting on Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and influencers like Lin who have engraved our history, we look, too, to find the place where opposites meet. We look to our commitment to #5050x2028, or roughly half women and half men in elected offices nationwide by 2028.

As Lin has shown us through her art, when women have a place at the table, we can better follow the “mighty stream” to a new way of thinking. Together, we can see the forest for the trees.

©2021 Women’s Campaign Fund

#5050x2028

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