Friday, March 4, 2011

In Praise of Three Women in a Bathtub

One of my favorite poems is by Edna St. Vincent Millay:

Upon this marble bust that is not I

Lay the round, formal wreath that is not fame;

But in the forum of my silenced cry

Root ye the living tree whose sap is flame.

I, that was proud and valiant, am no more; —

Save as a dream that wanders wide and late,

Save as a wind that rattles the stout door,

Troubling the ashes in the sheltered grate.

The stone shall perish; I shall be twice dust.

Only my standard on a taken hill

Can cheat the mildew and the red-brown rust

And make immortal my adventurous will.

Even now the silk is tugging at the staff:

Take up the song; forget the epitaph.

The poem ("The Pioneers", later retitled "To Inez Milholland", in honor of one of the martyrs of the women's rights struggle) was written in 1921 to commemorate the dedication of a monument in Washington, DC in honor of three great leaders of the women's suffrage movement-- Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony. The poet herself was present on the occasion to read her sonnet as the statue, officially known as the "Portrait Monument", was unveiled.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

"The stone will perish," the poem states, "I will be twice dust."

Well, that stone-- that statue-- hasn't perished yet. To the contrary, its visibility has only increased as the years have worn on.

A monument to Mott, Stanton, and Anthony was funded by the National Women's Party in 1920, to celebrate the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which finally gave women the right to vote. The Women's Party commissioned sculptor Adelaide Johnson to create the monument, and Johnson had completed her work by early 1921.

Adelaide Johnson

The statue was of Italian marble, and was designed in the Classical Roman style. Anthony, Stanton, and Mott appeared stately, stiff, rigid-- somewhat goddess-like, perhaps-- all clothed in Roman-style togas, their eyes blank and mythical. The heads and torsos of the three great leaders of the fight for suffrage are surrounded by rough-hewn marble and rest on two large rectangular stone slabs. The statue has a kind of "unfinished" look about it-- intentionally: the artist wanted to symbolize that the struggle for the rights of women would continue on into future generations.

The statue was unveiled on the Capitol steps on February 15, 1921-- the 101st anniversary of the birth of Susan B. Anthony. A host of dignitaries was present in addition to Miss Millay. There was great fanfare and applause as the National Women's Party presented its gift to the nation.

But within a very short time, critics (nearly all male critics, of course) started deriding the sculpture as "too radical", "inappropriate", and even "downright ugly". One wag declared that it looked like "three women still in their bathrobes". Another likened it to "three women in a bathtub", and the characterization stuck. Within a very short time, the "Portrait Monument" (all eight tons of it) was removed from the Capitol steps and banished to a (large) basement broom closet, where it remained for nearly forty years.

Finally in 1963, the statue saw the light of day again. It was granted a place in the Capitol crypt, the area just below the Rotunda. Here it stood for another thirty-three years, ingloriously flanked on one side by the men's lavatory and on the other by the ladies'.

But soon, the winds of change were rattling the stout door, troubling the ashes in the sheltered grate down in the crypt. It just would not do, many declared, for this important statue of these three great women to be relegated to the basement, just a half-floor above the broom closet. Women's rights advocates began to agitate for the statue to be moved back upstairs-- into Statuary Hall in the Rotunda, the most hallowed memorial area in the entire Capitol, perhaps in the entire nation. 

A coalition of eighty-one women's groups pushed and prodded and lobbied for thirty years until finally in 1993 Congress agreed that the time had come for the "Three Women in Bathtub" to come upstairs into Statuary Hall. It seemed as though victory was at hand at last.

But then came 1994, and the Republican take-over of the U.S. House of Representatives. Newt Gingrich was elected Speaker of the House, and one of the first official actions of the new Speaker was to block funding for moving the eight-ten statue from the crypt to the Rotunda. (If you need another reason to dislike Newt Gingrinch, there it is.)  

Once again, the battle was joined. Women's groups kept up the pressure until finally, in 1996, Congress again authorized the funding to move Adelaide Johnson's "Portrait Monument" up the stairs. A great victory, it seemed, had finally been won-- again.

However, soon after the decision to move the statue had been made, the National Political Congress of Black Women announced its opposition to the plan. "Why were only white women being so honored?" the group asked. Sojourner Truth, the great black nineteenth century crusader for both the abolition of slavery and votes for women was missing. Honoring only white suffragettes, the black women's group stated, did not accurately reflect the full scope of women's history. "It's wrong, and we're going to do everything we can to stop it," declared C. Delores Tucker, co-chair of the Black Women's Congress. "We have been left out of history too much and we're not going to be left out anymore."

Sojourner Truth

(Her words were an uncanny echo of earlier arguments between Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. After the Civil War, Anthony and her cohorts wanted women added to the Fourteenth Amendment that gave freed black men the right to vote. "Not now," Douglass had said. "That will only confuse things. That will muddy the waters. Votes for women can wait." Many in the suffrage movement went along with Douglass. But Stanton and Anthony and the more radical elements refused to step aside and watch freed male slaves enfranchised before they were. The women's rights movement was bitterly divided for almost a generation.)

But this time, it seemed, Anthony, Stanton, and Mott had carried the day. Finally, on May 12, 1997-- Mother's Day as it happened--  the eight-ton "Portrait Monument" was carefully moved up the stairs and assumed its new place of honor under the Capitol dome. In June of 1997, the statue was re-dedicated once again, with yet more fanfare and applause.  

In the early 1880s, while she was laboriously involved with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage in the arduous work of assembling their monumental History of Woman Suffrage, Susan B. Anthony grew impatient with all the cataloging and fact checking and copy editing and exclaimed, "I don't want to write history! I want to make it!"

She would have approved of the last line of Millay's sonnet to her:

Take up the song; forget the epitaph.

It is one thing to have a statue of three great women in the Rotunda of the Capitol. It is another thing truly to have a fair representation of women at the center of our government.

It is one thing to dedicate monuments. It is another thing to build a just society.

It is one thing to write (or read, or study) history. It is another thing to bring to birth a new history based in deeds of justice and peace.

But one need not preclude the other.

Happy Women's History Month to you all!

1 comment:

  1. Gin-grinch! That's funny. And now he wants to be president? That man has more baggage than a freight train!