Why the dearth?


At work today (well, yesterday), one of my colleagues informed me that my picture was in the Washington Post in an article about statues of women in the Capitol. I am tiny, but I am indeed there: at the bottom, toward the left, wearing (of course) a red vest.

As exciting as it is that I have finally made my long-overdue big break* in the Post, the content of the article is far more interesting. Why, reporter Cari Shane asks, are there so few statues of women in the United States, in the Capitol or elsewhere?

The expected reason is given: that history has by and large been HIStory. In contemporary times, though women have been given more opportunity and women’s achievements have garnered more recognition, we simply aren’t building so many new monuments. Finally, there has been a sentiment that the female movers and shakers of history ought to be honored not so much by building a statue but by carrying on the work of their causes.

Also, the article notes, some of the female statues that do exist are “largely generic, similar to the Greek- and Roman-era statues that honor the female form with anonymous figures.” I definitely see this phenomenon at work at the US Capitol, not only in the statues but in the paintings and frescoes. Who, for example, is this woman I photographed in the Senate Appropriations Conference Room?

Female figure on the wall in the Senate Appropriations Conference Room

Some of the most salient female figures at the Capitol represent lofty ideas. On the ceiling of the Rotunda, an image of George Washington (a specific individual man) is flanked by 15 mythological females who represent Liberty, Victory, and the 13 original states.

The generic “ladies” are sometimes confusing to visitors. “But who is she?” they sometimes ask about the Statue of Freedom, the huge statue on top of the dome, whose plaster model greets visitors up close in the Capitol Visitor Center. I explain that she represents the idea of freedom. Today, a woman said, “Who is that Indian?” Then, upon looking closer at Freedom, she said, “Oh, it’s not an Indian.” (It would certainly be interesting to read about how ethnicity also plays out in the breakdown of statues of individuals as well as statues representing ideas.)

Also today, a man looking for directions told me he was supposed to meet his party at “the statue of the two ladies.” I wasn’t sure what he meant, but a colleague who’s been there longer realized that the man was looking for the Peace Monument. Here, the “two ladies” represent the ideas of Grief and History. Contrast this with the Garfield Monument that sits on the opposite circle.

The Capitol does display statues of specific women as well. I have blogged about two of them, Helen Keller and Sakakawea. Suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony grace the Rotunda:

Stanton, Anthony, and Mott, juxtaposed against background of George Washington in a wartime surrender scene

The comments left by readers at the end of the Washington Post article are a little discouraging. Men and women alike are accused of wanting to erect statues of “themselves,” at the expense of others who are more worthy. I don’t recall reading of anyone wanting a statue of him or herself. (Except me. Now that I’ve been in the paper, building a statue of me is the next logical step.) Rather, people are asking that figures like Harriet Tubman be memorialized for their risk, sacrifice, achievements, and contributions. Unfortunately, in Statuary Hall at least, any new statue must literally replace an old one; each state is only allowed two statues. The question thus changes from “Is Harriet Tubman important?” to “Who is more important, John Hanson or Harriet Tubman?”

I hope that the naysayers, who insist that women simply haven’t done anything that warrants a statue, read the whole article. Toward the end, Shane writes, “Some experts suggest that instead of focusing on erecting celebratory statues of themselves, women chose to focus on effecting legislative change.” Eventually, I hope to see statues of some of these women who chose this focus.

*I jest.

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
This entry was posted in Articles and Books, Capitol Visitor Center, Photos and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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