Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott have put on some weight since 1920, when the three pioneers of women’s suffrage were sculpted in Italian marble to commemorate passage of the 19th amendment, then unceremoniously dumped in the basement of the U.S. Capitol.
They languished there - their poignant inscription wiped clean from the base of the statue for being too gloating and too “pagan” - for almost 77 years, five years longer than it took women to win the right to vote.
The 26,400-pound “Portrait Monument,” as it is officially titled, grew heavier with the weight of sexism, ageism and politics.
In the beginning, men objected to its having a place of honor in the Capitol Rotunda, which houses the figures of such distinguished male Americans as Thomas “Declaration of Independence” Jefferson, George “Father of Our Country” Washington, James “We the People” Madison and Spiro “Disgraced Governor and Failed Vice President” Agnew.
They were offended by the statue’s inscription, which lauded the women as “three great destiny characters of the world whose spiritual import and historical significance transcend that of all others of any country or age.”
In the end, men objected to the relocation of the statue from the aptly named crypt in the Capitol’s basement. Those peckish men were eventually joined by several women in Congress who sniffed at using federal funds to hoist 13 tons of history up to a place where the public could appreciate women’s struggle for equal rights.
When first offered as a gift to America in 1921, Congress snubbed the statue until National Woman’s Party President Alice Paul had it hauled to the Capitol steps by mule.
Mules, it seems, have been an ongoing theme.
One of the most mulish was Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who, monument supporters say, stonewalled on bringing the statue’s relocation up for a vote after the Senate had quickly approved it.
The monument, derisively dubbed “Three Ladies in a Bathtub,” has been variously deemed too ugly, too irreverent, two controversial.
And too heavy.
But on Mother’s Day this year, after supporters spent two years raising more than $75,000 in private funds, Anthony, Stanton and Mott got a dose of political Slimfast and finally were declared dainty enough to make the journey upstairs. On Thursday, the statue was unveiled and rededicated in a ceremony attended by a gaggle of dignitaries.
One of those dignitaries was Gingrich himself, now trumpeting the monument’s significance.
An aide to Gingrich was shocked to learn monument movers considered him a roadblock.
“He has been supportive of the statue,” she insisted.
In the glow of the moment, no one’s in a mood to argue. The ceremony came off without a hitch. All 650 seats in the Rotunda were filled, actors portraying Stanton and her friend, black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, moved the audience to tears, and Gingrich declared the statue a tribute to women’s achievements.
An exhausted Joan Meacham, co-chair of the Women’s Suffrage Statue Campaign, went to bed Thursday after midnight “a limp washcloth, a happy limp washcloth” after a five-year battle to move the ladies.
The campaign started in Meacham’s Cape May, N.J., kitchen in 1992, when she was president of her local League of Women Voters and a member of the Alice Paul Centennial Foundation. Never did she think that honoring the suffrage pioneers would bring such headaches.
“We had so many hurdles,” said Meacham, who now divides her time between Washington, D.C., and a home in Mesa. “We were shocked to find women hadn’t come as far as we thought.”
But when she stood up to speak at Thursday’s dedication, the audience gave her a two-minute ovation.
Where so many symbols of women in official America are mythical figures - the Statue of Liberty, Lady Justice, the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol - real women, she says, are finally in a place of prominence.
“We have real women we can honor who have contributed to the franchisement of 52 percent of the population,” Meacham said.
But woman’s work is never done.
There’s the National Museum of Women’s History, of which Meacham is vice president, still in planning stages. There are black women to honor for their work in abolition. And, considering all the battles just to move one statue, it’s painfully obvious women are a long way from equality even in 1997.
There are a lot of mules to clean up after. Start your push brooms.
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