The struggle for our rights isn't over

September 11, 2001|By Susan Reimer

WE GATHERED in the Lyndon B. Johnson Room of the U.S. Capitol to toast the anniversary of women's right to vote: the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. It was a typical Washington networking mix: lobbyists, journalists, government officials and people from the arts world. A couple of men, but mostly women.

Among the women were the silver-haired war horses from the early days of the women's movement, for whom birth control, personal credit, graduate school and jobs outside the elementary-school classroom had been the new frontier.

And there were the twenty-something women, who learned of the suffrage movement and women's liberation from history books, and who laughed in nervous astonishment at the stories about all that women were once forbidden to do: join college marching bands, report on professional sports teams, play basketball, seek a legal abortion, have children and a career.

The young women in the LBJ room assume equal pay, equal opportunity and equal treatment, while the old-timers in the room still fear the backslide.

It was late August. Congress was in recess. I had the feeling we'd only been allowed to meet because all the men were out of town, but I dismissed it as an echo of the old paranoia.

After we raised a glass to the 19th Amendment, some of the women clicked down the empty, echoing halls, in our sensible pumps, to the Rotunda to pay our respects to the Founding Mothers.

Out of a block of marble rises the figures of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony, the women who won the right to vote for women.

There are statues in every nook and cranny of the Capitol, and all but this one are of men. Until recently, it was consigned to a storage area underneath the Capitol, where it spent 76 years.

"During all that time in the basement, women would go down, clean it, have ceremonies and leave yellow roses at the base," recalled Joanie Meacham, who first conceived the notion that the statue should be brought upstairs as part of the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the right to vote.

It would take five years to persuade Congress to vote the statue out of storage, and Meacham and her band of determined women had to raise the money themselves to pay the movers - $84,000, mostly in contributions of a single dollar.

The monument was presented to the Capitol as a gift from the women of the United States by the National Woman's Party Feb. 10, 1921. Chiseled by Adelaide Johnson, the statue depicts the busts of the women emerging from an unfinished base, which was said to represent the constraints on women.

Congress, then an all-male body, welcomed the monument to the Rotunda with great ceremony. Five days later, they moved it to the storeroom officially known as the Crypt. And in 1928, 1932 and again in 1950, Congress refused to approve bills that would move the suffragists out of the basement.

In 1963, the Crypt was renovated and opened to the public, and the statue could be viewed. But it did not carry any sign identifying the women depicted, and its title had been changed from The Woman's Movement to The Portrait Monument.

During the recent and successful struggle to bring the statue out of the basement, all manner of objections were raised: it was ugly; it lacked historical merit; it was too heavy; and black suffragist Sojourner Truth was not depicted.

But in August 1996, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the most determined opponent to the statue's placement in the Rotunda, dropped his objections, and on Mother's Day 1997, it emerged into the sunlight.

It's placement, however, is temporary and its future uncertain. The House and Senate bills that approved the move did so for only 12 months, a deadline which has, of course, passed.

If you don't believe this story - if you don't think things like this happen anymore, if you think all these battles have been fought and won, that all these silly prejudices have been beaten back - make a pilgrimage to the Rotunda in the U.S. Capitol and pay tribute to the statue honoring the visionaries who began the women's movement more than 100 years ago, and whose work is not yet done.

When you find it, you will see that there is no inscription, no plaque.

In 1921, when the first of the "Marys" went to the tomb in the basement of the Capitol to dust the statue and lay roses, they found that the inscription, which proclaimed in part "Women, their rights and nothing less" had been sandblasted and white-washed away.

It remains erased to this day.

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