Separate Bathtubs

April 29, 1997|By Ellen Goodman

WASHINGTON -- It's a good thing that Adelaide Johnson chose a 13-ton block of marble for her suffragist statue. Anything lighter would have cracked by now under the pressure of so much symbolism.

In 1920, the sculptor's tribute to Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony was carved against a rough-hewn background to represent the unfinished nature of the women's rights struggle. As Johnson explained at the time: Women's work is never done. How right she was.

Congress refused to accept this gift until the National Woman's Party president, Alice Paul, had the statue literally dragged by mules to the Capitol steps. Then, after a brief ceremony, the "Three Ladies in a Bathtub," as they were irreverently dubbed, were promptly put back in their place: a broom closet.

The statue sat stoically in the crypt area in the basement until the 1990s when a number of women decided that it was time for the trio to move up in the world. Upstairs that is, and into the Rotunda, the symbolic center of American democracy.

In the Rotunda all marble -- and bronze -- is male. Indeed, the only women found here are in paintings that show two Native American maidens cowering in front of soldiers, one demure Pocahontas in Gone-With-The-Wind clothing being baptized, and Martha Washington looking down from a balcony at George.

As Karen Staser, the co-chair of the Woman Suffrage Statue Campaign who has struggled to get some "her" in this his-tory, says, "It reminded me of the first-grade readers: Look Jane, Look. See Dick Run." See him run the democracy.

What followed was a perils-of-Pauline -- not to mention Lucretia, Elizabeth and Susan -- saga through Congress. Talk about symbolism. The statue was opposed on the grounds that it was ugly. (Subtext: The women were not young beauties.) And that moving it was too costly. And that it was a feminist plot anyway.

Finally, and I do mean finally, Congress voted to allow the use of private funds to raise the "Three Ladies in a Bathtub" for a one-year run in the Rotunda. As Ms. Staser put, "It took longer to move the statue than to win the right to vote."

But no sooner were the traveling papers signed than this symbolic target for arguments over feminism, looks-ism and cost-ism was attacked for racism. C. DeLores Tucker, chair of the National Political Congress of Black Women, suddenly mounted a campaign against a statue that didn't include Sojourner Truth. Four Ladies in a Bathtub?

The move to include women in history, she said, excluded black women. To wit: Sojourner Truth. There were charges that the suffragists and even the statue were tainted by racism.

A 3 1/2-hour news conference convened by Ms. Tucker last week boiled down to a complaint that a statue of three white suffragists was a historic lie because it excluded this black suffragist. It boiled down to the demand: No Truth, no move.

This interracial, intragender spat has all sorts of unhappy echoes for modern feminists. But suffrage historian Ann Gordon rues the idea that "these three women would take the hit for the fact that this has been a racist society. I mean, this is a fight to get a statue into a room full of slaveholders."

Anti-slavery activists

Just for the historic record, Mott and Stanton met when they were banned from an anti-slavery conference in London -- on account of their sex. They and Anthony began as abolitionists. "Ironically," says Ms. Gordon, "the statue would be the most prominent tribute to anti-slavery activists in the Capitol."

If you dig through Stanton's papers you can find sentiments that ring racist to our ears -- especially in her post-Civil War complaint that an illiterate male ex-slave could vote while women were still disenfranchised. But apparently she didn't offend Sojourner Truth, who stayed at the Stanton home.

As for Truth -- with a capital T? She was a powerful figure, a self-made and re-made woman. As a welcome star at the Woman's Rights Convention in 1851, she delivered the speech that we know by the line: "Aren't I A Woman?" But her work was only intermittently devoted to suffrage. We don't have to squeeze her life into the same bathtub.

In a symbolic struggle over symbols, there's room for Truth and truth. The statue committee and some black congresswomen are trying to broker a deal that would pave the way for a Truth statue another year.

Meanwhile the threesome are at long, long, long last scheduled to be resurrected from the crypt next weekend and feted in June. Any way you look at it, it's a step, or a flight of steps, in the right direction.

This week, a schoolboy passing the three women in the basement asked a nearby guide, "Were these real people?" Adelaide Johnson had it right: The work is unfinished.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/29/97

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.