Early in 2009, my son and I took a tour of The United States Capitol. Upon entering the rotunda I noticed eight giant paintings covering the walls of the round room. Each portrayed a different scene from early American history. In all eight paintings there was only one identifiable woman, Pocahontas on her knees before man and God. When I finally looked up I noticed the frieze encircling the Capitol dome. It depicts a timeline of American history in nineteen historical scenes starting with the landing of Columbus and ending with the birth of aviation. Again there was only one recognizable woman, Pocahontas. I wondered did we women as a collective contribute nothing to American history. Or is it possible that we are really that invisible?
I’d been to the Capitol before but it was as if I suddenly saw the Capitol with a new eyes. What I saw was painful to behold. The country I was born and raised in didn’t see me or the women that came before me. It didn’t see my female ancestors who were courageous enough to sail on the Mayflower, who died in childbirth or were literally scalped by Indians. My country didn’t honor me or half my heritage.
Before I could get too lost in my thoughts the guide started to highlight some of the sculptures that comprise the National Statuary Hall Collection. Located throughout the Capitol Building, The Collection featured 100 statues of distinguished Americans, two from each state. I found myself surrounded by ten foot tall statues of men, most of whom I did not recognize. Sure I recognized the statues of George Washington, Will Rogers and King Kamehameha but who were Hannibal Hamlin, John Stark or Lewis Wallace? Was my knowledge of United States History really that bad?
I finally asked the guide the question that was rumbling around in the back of my mind. “How many statues of women are in The Collection?” “Nine,” the guide said proudly. “Hellen Keller is number nine.” Nine! My head was reeling. Women comprise over half the population, and there were only nine women deemed noteworthy enough to grace the hallowed halls of the United States Capitol. My retort was quick and definitive. “I’m going to change that.” “That’s impossible,” the guide countered. Taking on the challenge I responded defiantly, “Watch me.” And so it began.
The quest for parity in National Statuary Hall was in the back of my mind when an article in the New York Times in November of 2009 bought it front of center. Ohio was going to replace the statue of Governor William Allen, their representative in NSH, with a statue of another noteworthy Ohioan. The list of nominees noted in The Times included three presidents, Olympic athlete Jesse Owen, and William Ellsworth Hoy, a deaf baseball known as Dummy but not a single woman was listed.
After extensive research and help from friends, I had a comprehensive list of notable women either born in or associated with Ohio. My two favorites were Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the best-selling book of the entire 19th century and sharp-shooter and philanthropist Annie Oakley. I flew to the public hearings at the State Capitol Building in Columbus, Ohio to testify on behalf of a woman candidate. I walked into a large room crammed with supporters touting the merits of their respective candidates. Orville and Wilbur Wright’s niece was there on their behalf as was the head of the Ohio State University Athletic Department accompanied by a cadre of athletes to support the candidacy of Jesse Owens.
Although several women testified on behalf of several women candidates, in the end, the Committee decided inventor Thomas Alva Edison would represent Ohio in National Statuary Hall. Defeated but not discouraged, I found comfort in the fact that I knew a lot more about Statuary Hall than when I started. I now knew that individual state legislatures select the statues and donate them to the Capitol. I began to research the most famous women in American History and determined what states were they from and what statues would they have to replace. I also made a list of what I thought were the most vulnerable statues in The Collection and looked for female candidates in those states. I knew I could never replace the likes of George Washington, but I thought John Burke or Milton Rose would be easy targets. I now know when it comes to National Statuary Hall nothing is ever easy.
I focused my efforts on Maryland and found three exceptional women: Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring and founder of the environmental movement and abolitionist Harriet Tubman. I settled on replacing the statue of John Hanson with one of Harriet Tubman. I testified, lobbied and got publicity for the cause. I partnered with Maryland NOW who worked intensely on behalf of the Tubman Statue. The Maryland House passed the bill calling for the replacement unanimously. Even though the Governor Martin O’Malley publically supported the measure, Mike Miller, Chair of the Maryland Senate, would not bring the bill to the floor of the Senate for a vote. Miller argued that Hanson was actually the first President of the United States since he was President of the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation. Really? I don’t think so. After three years of fighting compromise legislation passed stating that Maryland would gift a third statue, one of Harriet Tubman, to the United States Capitol. The Architect of the Capitol reiterated what I already knew, no state is allowed to have three statues. There is no room in the Capitol for 150 statues. If you want Tubman in, someone has to come out. Unfortunately the Maryland Legislature would not budge.
Aviator Amelia Earhart, made my short list of noteworthy women. I discovered legislation passed years earlier by the Kansas Legislature to simultaneously put both Dwight D. Eisenhower and Amelia Earhart in National Statuary Hall. The Statue of Eisenhower was installed in the Capitol in 2003 but efforts on behalf of Amelia Earhart were dropped. I solicited the support of the Governor, and the Architect of the Capitol and got the necessary approvals to proceed with substituting the statue John James Ingalls with one of Amelia Earhart. I formed a Statue Selection Committee to select the artist, flew to Kansas twice to meet with city officials and review artist presentations. The city officials of Atchison, Kansas have taken over the project and I anticipate Amelia will be unveiled in 2019.
I have worked for three years convincing the members of the Florida State Legislature to select a woman to represent Florida in National Statuary Hall. I testified before various legislative committees and lobbied members of both the State House and State Senate. I have given presentations before the Women’s Caucus in the State Legislature, the Florida Commission for Women and to numerous other groups around the state. A statue of Mary McLeod Bethune will replace the statue of Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith. She will be the eleventh woman and first African American of either gender in The Collection.
On March 21, 2018 Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed a resolution that will replace the statue of television inventor Philo T. Farnsworth with one of Martha Hughes Cannon the nation’s first female State Senator. Cannon will be the twelfth woman honored with a statue in the National Statuary Hall Collection.
Opportunities for replacement statues honoring incredible women abound. Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts, would be an appropriate representative from Georgia replacing the statue of Crawford W. Long whose statue was installed in the Capitol in 1926. In North Carolina a statue of Poet Laurette Maya Angelou could replace the statue of Zebulon B. Vance, a Confederate Military Officer whose statue has been in the Capitol for 102 years. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a New York native, would be an excellent replacement for American soldier and statesman George Clinton whose statue was given to the Capitol in 1873. Roosevelt’s statue could symbolically represent all the First Ladies since there is not a single statue of a First Lady in National Statuary Hall.