Breaking the Bronze Ceiling

Heather Nesle, B.A. ’97, M.T.A. ’99, helped bring the first statue of historic women to Central Park.

March 22, 2023

Heather Nesle

(Photos courtesy of Monumental Women and the NYC Parks Department)

New York City’s Central Park is home to dozens of statues of historical figures, but until 2020, not one of those statues depicted a woman. Now a 14-foot bronze statue of three women, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, stands along the park’s famed Literary Walk, and that’s in part thanks to another woman: Heather Nesle, B.A. ’97, M.T.A. ’99.

Nesle--president of New York Life Foundation, the charitable foundation created by New York Life--first heard of Monumental Women, the nonprofit organization advocating for the representation of women in Central Park, in 2016.

At the time, Central Park only featured statues of fictional women like Alice in Wonderland, Juliet Capulet and Mother Goose.

“I was shocked because I go to Central Park almost every day, and I couldn't believe that there were no statues of real women in the park,” said Nesle. “And there were only five statues of real women in the entire city, which is even more unacceptable.”

When Nesle found out that Susan B. Anthony was one of the women the group wanted to honor, it felt like a sign for her to get involved.

“Susan B. Anthony had a really rich history with New York Life. She had been a policy owner and her father, brother and brother-in-law were all agents of the company. And she actually used the cash value of her whole life insurance policy to get the first women admitted to the University of Rochester,” Nesle explained. “So I met with one of the organizers of the campaign, heard their story and said, ‘OK, how can we kickstart fundraising for this?’”

Central Park statue

The 14-foot bronze statue of Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton stands along the park’s famed Literary Walk.

Nesle joined Monumental Women’s board of directors, and New York Life offered a challenge grant of $500,000, which helped the group reach its $1.5 million fundraising goal. The statue was unveiled on Aug. 26, 2020, the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote.

“It was an amazing accomplishment,” Nesle said. “And the organization still exists today to help create more education [on women’s suffrage] and advocate for additional monuments in cities across the country.”

One of those cities is Washington, D.C., where Nesle spent her formative college years. An interest in politics had brought her to the city, but a scholarship brought her to George Washington University.  

“I really liked the vibe at GW, but the scholarship was what enabled me to go there,” said Nesle, who had applied to other schools in the city. “It was a renewable scholarship that by the end of four years had covered an entire year’s worth of tuition. So it was a significant amount of money, and it really made a difference.”

The Long Island native immediately threw herself into everything GW and D.C. had to offer, pledging a sorority, getting involved with the Panhellenic Association and working myriad jobs, her favorite of which was with GW’s summer orientation program the summer after her junior year.

“It was like being at summer camp. I got to live in the dorms again and drive new students in this big van to go do all sorts of things. I think I saw ‘Mission Impossible’ six times that summer,” she recalled with a smile. “It was just a really great experience.”

As graduation loomed, Nesle, a communications major with an emphasis in political communications, began thinking about her next step. On a whim, she applied for and received GW’s Presidential Administrative Fellowship (PAF) for graduate students.

“It was transformative,” she said. “PAF paid for my entire degree, gave me a place to live and gave me a job. Most importantly though, it gave me the time and space to figure out what I thought I might want to do with my life.”

After receiving her master’s degree, Nesle accepted a job at Fannie Mae Multifamily, which finances quality, sustainable and affordable rental housing. She spent seven years at Fannie Mae in various positions across the company before moving on to HSBC Bank where she spent another seven years working in its corporate contributions division.

Nesle said she feels fortunate to have been able to make a career out of helping people, and it’s in part thanks to the financial help she received enabling her to attend GW.

“I think the experiences I had at GW really set me up for success after graduation,” Nesle said, noting that she was moved into a website management role at Fannie Mae because she knew HTML coding, which at the time was a relatively uncommon skill that she had learned at GW.

Now she’s in what she describes as “the best job,” even if it doesn’t come with the same movie perks as her GW summer orientation gig.

“I get to work with incredible nonprofit organizations and generally just get to see the best in people,” she said. “Every day I get to help families, and it’s fantastic.”

Open Doors: The Centuries Initiative for Scholarships & Fellowships charts a course to increase access to the transformative power of a GW degree. Learn more about how GW is expanding opportunity for the next generation of leaders.