A rock and a hard place Statue: The stormy debate over placing a Capitol sculpture honoring three feminists may finally be approaching a compromise.

June 22, 1996|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON KERRY A. WHITE OF THE SUN'S WASHINGTON BUREAU CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — WASHINGTON -- In a small victory for women's rights, several early feminists finally may be on the verge of moving up in the Capitol.

After nearly a year of congressional wrangling, a compromise seems near on moving a statue of three suffragists from the Capitol Crypt to the Rotunda upstairs.

"No one is going to vote against it," said Maryland Rep. Constance A. Morella., a Montgomery County Republican.

With the past as a guide, though, no one involved in the issue is likely to plan a dedication ceremony any time soon either.

Last September, Morella urged the House to approve moving the statue to commemorate the 75th anniversary of women winning the right to vote.

It seemed like a noncontroversial, housekeeping detail, until several budget-conscious GOP congresswomen opposed the move's $75,000 estimated cost as a waste of taxpayer money.

To the surprise of many, moving the statue became a full-blown political issue, generating debate that at times was as confusing as an Abbott and Costello routine.

With the 75th anniversary long past, Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, a Connecticut Republican, is pushing a compromise to resolve the disagreement: Move the statue to the Rotunda for a year and then make it the centerpiece of an educational exhibit on suffrage located somewhere else.

Given the weariness of those involved, the idea just might fly.

"I don't care what they do," said Morella, who sponsored the House resolution. "I've done enough heavy lifting."

"As far as I'm concerned, they can move it up there," said North Carolina GOP Rep. Sue Myrick, who initially opposed the idea on fiscal grounds. "I mean, please, put it to rest."

Marble monument

At the center of the dispute is an 8-ton block of Italian marble that features the likenesses of Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, leading figures in the fight for women's suffrage.

The statue was sculpted by Adelaide Johnson, something of an eccentric who positioned earlier figures she had crafted of the women at her wedding as if they were bridesmaids.

Unveiled in 1921, a year after women won the right to vote, the statue has spent most of its time in the windowless Crypt on the ground floor of the Capitol.

Previous tries

On three separate occasions, women have tried to have it moved upstairs without success.

Last year, Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens and Virginia Sen. John W. Warner, both Republicans, sponsored a resolution to move the statue into the sunlight of the Rotunda, alongside the fraternity of sculpture that includes Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

The Senate passed it unanimously.

Morella then took the lead in the House.

The statue, she told her colleagues in a floor speech, could educate children on the value of voting at a time when many don't appreciate that right.

Despite the objections at the time, public money may no longer )) be much of an issue.

There seem to be at least two options. The Capitol Preservation Commission, which funds the restoration of art works and related projects, has $28 million in private money, though none ,, has been committed to transporting the statue.

And women's groups have already raised $25,000 from private sources to pay for the move.

A letter proposing the statue be placed in the Rotunda for a year and a commission formed to plan its next move will circulate among women members of the House before being delivered in the next few weeks to Warner, chairman of the Senate committee on rules and administration, which oversees the aesthetics of the Capitol, among other things.

'Ladies in the Bathtub'

With finances seemingly resolved, artistic taste emerged as a battle ground.

Some don't think the sculpture is much to look at. Known around the Capitol as the "Ladies in the Bathtub," it features the three women protruding from a huge block of marble.

Mott, who organized the 1848 Seneca Falls, N.Y., convention that launched the women's rights movement, stares out impassively from beneath a bonnet.

Anthony, who proposed the constitutional amendment to give women the right to vote, sports a hairdo that resembles rams' horns.

And, as one female congressional staffer put it, Stanton, who first demanded women be given the right to vote, looks as though she has just left the beauty parlor but forgotten to comb out her curlers.

"In the Rotunda, it doesn't fit aesthetically," said Johnson, the Connecticut congresswoman who is trying to make peace.

Karen K. Staser, president of the National Museum of Women's History, a nonprofit group helping to organize the fund-raising campaign, disagrees.

"It's about so much more than the art itself," Staser said. "We have lots of icons of women, the Statue of Liberty, the Statue of Freedom. What we need are real women that boys and girls can look up to."

Gridlock

With the 76th anniversary of women's voting rights just around the corner, Morella seems relieved that the dispute appears headed toward a resolution. Still, she is a bit chagrined that it has taken so long to resolve what is essentially the congressional equivalent of moving furniture.

"It confirms the stereotypic notion of gridlock," Morella said of the controversy. "People look at the issue and say:

"If they can't agree on something like that, how can they agree on anything?"

Pub Date: 6/22/96

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