Friday, February 17, 2012

Heroines in DC

In this month's focus on the United States, and continuing our series on statues (to inspire the one of Mary Wollstonecraft that is in the works), we have an excellent opportunity to look at American statues of women. To what extent they explicitly or implicitly acknowledged their debt to the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (which turns 220 years old this week), I do not know.

In the Capitol, the symbolic centre of American democracy, is The Woman Movement, also known as the Portrait or the Suffrage Monument, a curious white block from which rise three marmoreal figures. A good first stop for information is, as ever,Wikipedia (and have I mentioned that Mary Wollstonecraft is at the centre of a splendid series of Featured Articles? Oh yes, I have). So, who are these White Ladies?

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the principal author of the Declaration of Sentimentsa document signed in 1848 by 68 women and 32 men who attended the first women's rights assembly, now known as the Seneca Falls ConventionLucretia Mott was a Quaker social reformer; she attended the World Anti-slavery Convention in London in 1840 during her honeymoon trip, where the two women met. 

Susan B. Anthony came slightly later to the cause of women's rights, having previously been active in temperance and anti-slavery. The house she lived in for most of her life is now a museum, and in the little park it faces is a rather wonderful statue of her with former slave Frederick Douglass, enjoying cups and conversation. It is called Let's Take Tea, and is worth a separate post.

The sculptor of the marble block was Adelaide Johnson (1859-1955):
In 1896 she married Frederick Jenkins, a British businessman and fellow vegetarian who was eleven years younger than she. He took her name as "the tribute love pays to genius". They were wed by a woman minister, and her bridesmaids were the busts she did of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. However, the marriage ended after twelve years. She exhibited at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, showing busts of prominent suffragists Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The high point of her career was to complete a monument in Washington D.C. in honor of the women's suffrage movement. Alva Belmont helped to secure funding for the piece, which was unveiled in 1921. [...In later life, as she was faced] with eviction for failure to pay taxes, in 1939 she invited the press to witness her mutilating her own sculptures as a protest against her circumstances, and against the failure to realize her dream of a studio-museum commemorating suffragists and other women's campaigners. 
It seems that much of this comes from a two-page biography by two men, Frank Faragasso and Doug Stover, associated with the Sewall-Belmont National Landmark, the headquarters, museum and archives of the National Woman's Party. It's a classic case of donor beware: look what happens when you give an expensive present to someone who doesn't really want it:
The National Woman's Party presented the 13-ton statue to Congress in 1921, less than a year after the passage of the 19th Amendment. Congress grudgingly accepted it, with its gilded inscription praising the women ""whose spiritual import and historical significance transcends that of all others of any country or any age." Twenty-four hours later, the gilding had been whitewashed and the statue moved from the Rotunda to a storage area beneath, where it remains.
( From "Girl seeks to move statue to Rotunda" in the Houston Chronicle. See also "A rock and a hard place Statue: The stormy debate over placing a Capitol sculpture honoring three feminists may finally be approaching a compromise" in the Baltimore Sun.)  Faragasso and Stover's piece seems to have been written in the mid-1990s, when the statue's place in the Capitol was once more under discussion. Eventually it got moved (back) to the Rotunda. The two men argue in "A Marriage of Art and Politics":
One of the peculiarities of our culture is that artists seldom take an interest in politics, and politicians do not come from the ranks of the artistic community. Occasionally, art and politics blend in one public person. Adelaide Johnson (1859-1955) was an artist who devoted her life’s work to the advancement of equality for women and, in doing so, merged her artistic life with amajor political concern. The women’s movement served as an inspiration for her most monumental works. Her life-size sculptures of prominent suffragists were intended to immortalize the early movement leaders and to convey the sense that what these suffragists did for women was courageous as the actions of the men who founded the Republic.
They conclude:
The symbolism made manifest in this ponderous piece of marble kept the [women's] movement alive. It would become the only monument in Washington honoring the women's suffrage movement. The original inscription placed on the base of the statue by Johnson engendered such a strong negative reaction that members of Congress had it covered with whitewash. Every step of the way the statue has evoked a strong response from one group or another. Its acceptance, the inscription, and now its move to a new location have all been resisted. Still, the support for the monument has prevailed.
The newer, better photo is from Wikimedia here, published under the GNU Free Documentation License. The older one,presumably a newspaper grab-and-grin, ishere on Wikimedia, sourced from the National Parks Service biography. Johnson is on the left; it is not stated who the other two women are. 

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