Women in history deserve statues, too
The struggle to get the suffrage statue out of the basement
It took gazing at a massive monument near the banks of the Potomac 40 years ago that made me understand what was missing in Washington, D.C.
The elaborate memorial, 20 feet high and surrounded with allegorical figures, a compass and a life-size statue of the seated honoree, is… drumroll please… all for the glory of John C. Ericsson, the inventor of the screw propeller.
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Perhaps he is a hero to naval engineers. But where were the monuments to orator Sojourner Truth, feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, astronomer Maria Mitchell? On that balmy afternoon, dumbfounded by the public monument fit for a pharaoh yet built for a man so obscure, I realized what I didn’t see in the city where I attended graduate school for journalism: statues of women that were not mythical figures.
There were and are hundreds of statues of famous men; men on horses, men seated, men gazing to the horizon, men in contemplation, but almost no public statues of women anywhere in our capital.
Infuriated, within a week I interviewed the leading expert on Washington sculptures, historian James M. Goode, tracking him down down at the Smithsonian Institute, where he worked and had written a book, “The Outdoor Sculpture of Washington, D.C.: A comprehensive historical guide.” He confirmed that of the hundreds of public statues and sculptures in the city, only two - TWO - were of women in history: the great educator, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Jane Delano, the founder of the Red Cross Nursing Service.
In 1983, neither Goode nor anyone else seemed to think twice about it.
Fast forward to 1996. I was an editorial writer and columnist for The Day in New London, Conn., when I got a nudge from my sister Claudia, then living in the Washington area. She faxed an article about the Portrait Monument in the Capitol basement, featuring busts of three 19th century feminists and suffragists: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott.
In 1921 the National Women’s Party had donated the monument to recognize women’s gaining the right to vote. It was unveiled in the Capitol Rotunda, the beautiful, historic room directly underneath the Capitol Dome. It stayed there for a day or two. Then men in Congress sent the statue packing to languish in an area where janitors kept mops and brooms. They even ordered the inscription on the base, which explained the importance of women’s struggle, to be chiseled off. The Portrait Monument stayed in the basement for 75 years.
The monument that was meant to be a tribute to women’s struggle for the vote stayed in the basement for 75 years.
Reading the article, I became irritated all over again (sisters being who they are, Claudia knew exactly how I would react). But I wasn’t alone in my outrage. Women in Congress were getting mighty upset about the issue, too. I wrote a column about the statue. Coline Jenkins, of Greenwich, Conn. read it and had good reason to agree: She is Stanton’s great-great granddaughter and no slouch when it comes to raising issues or hell, if need be. Jenkins and an eclectic group of women from around the country, women in Congress and some surprising male allies began to push for moving the monument back to the Rotunda, which always featured statues of men.
Predictably, obstacles arose. First, the Capitol architect said because the statue, with its base, weighed 13 tons, the building could not support it. When that was shown to be untrue, Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich - who controlled a budget of $23 million for Capitol maintenance - refused to spend a dime of public money to move the statue. So Jenkins and others raised $75,000 for that purpose. Finally, a last hurdle remained, which I discovered one day when I called to get an update from the committee composed of advocates working on the cause. Members had just been informed that the Portrait Monument could be in the Rotunda for only one year. They were debating how to respond. My opinion was immediate. “Take the deal! Once the statue is in the Rotunda, it isn’t going anywhere.”
Finally, in May 1997, I watched, alongside my then-9-year-old daughter, Anna, as the shroud was pulled off the Portrait Monument in the Rotunda and the room erupted in cheers. Nearly all the women of Congress attended the ceremony and I was able to introduce Anna to women trailblazers who I had admired for years, such as then-Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, who gave the best speech of anyone that day, and Rep. Patricia Schroeder (who, sadly, died just last week). Four years later, Anna told the story to her 8th grade classmates as they toured the Capitol. As girls swarmed the statue and took pictures of each other before it, I knew, then, why it all mattered.
Times have changed, and now people like Victoria Karpos are helping raise the awareness of women who have done so much for little recognition. She is vice president of Statues.com, a statue manufacturing company based in Utah. Several years ago, she realized that her family’s company was unwittingly promoting a one-sided view of history.
“We were producing a lot of mythological women, like angels and the goddess Athena, but we didn’t have real women. And I realized we had to break the chain of sculpting statues of just men,” Karpos said. “It can’t just be all Lincoln and Reagan on the shelves.”
The company began to produce statues of historical women, starting with the crusading journalist Ida B. Wells, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B Anthony. Business has been brisk, Karpos said. Even better, “the conversation feels like it is growing,” she said.
Now the company sells about 24 figures of women in history, and are adding more all the time, selling to museums, bookstores and other establishments. The best sellers? Feminist Alice Paul, and two of my favorites, author Maya Angelou and Wells.
The company also sells a replica of the Portrait Monument. And the real one? That’s still in the Rotunda, where it has remained all these years.
Those of us who have founded the Jeannette Rankin Foundation and others who have joined us are proud to say that her statue is installed in DC: Jeannette Rankin is a bronze sculpture depicting the American politician and women's rights advocate of the same name by Terry Mimnaugh, installed in the United States Capitol Visitor Center's Emancipation Hall, in Washington, D.C., as part of the National Statuary Hall Collection. The statue was gifted by the U.S. state of Montana in 1985. For those who may not know she was the first woman elected to the United States Congress. A foundation honors her life by awarding scholarships to older women. See www.rankinfoundation.org
Such good advice: what's put in the Rotunda stays in the Rotunda!