Tubman statue would help write women back into history

March 10, 2011|By Lynette Long

The Maryland General Assembly has an opportunity to send a new representative to the United States Capitol. This person wouldn't be a voting member of Congress but would stand tall in the halls of the Capitol and serve as a symbol of freedom, courage and equality to all Americans. This session, the Maryland legislature will decide whether or not to replace the statue of John Hanson that has stood in National Statuary Hall for more than 100 years with one of Harriet Tubman.

National Statuary Hall was established in 1864 by an act of Congress. By law, each state is authorized to furnish two statues of citizens who are "illustrious for their historic renown or for distinguished civic or military services." Harriet Tubman certainly fits that description. She was an abolitionist, a union spy, a suffragist, and a great Marylander who risked her own life countless times to save the lives of others. John Hanson, a Colonial era farmer and first president of the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation, is represented by one of Maryland's two statues in the collection. The other statue is of Charles Carroll, another Colonial-era Marylander, who was the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Our nation's Capitol is the symbol of our democracy. In a nation where we believe that anyone can accomplish anything, our government systematically sends the unmistakable message to girls and women that their contributions to our country's history were insignificant. The enormous Capitol frieze surrounding the Rotunda depicts the history of the United States, celebrating key moments in our history from the nation's inception to the discovery of flight, and yet there is only one recognizable woman depicted in those paintings: Pocahontas. In Statuary Hall itself, there is only one woman out of 38 statues, and only nine women in the entire Collection of 100 statues displayed throughout the Capitol.

Three states have updated their contributions to National Statuary Hall: Kansas substituted Dwight D. Eisenhower for George Washington Glick in 2003; Alabama replaced Jabez Curry with a statue of Helen Keller in 2009; and California removed a statue of Thomas Starr King in favor of one of Ronald Reagan in 2009. Several other states have designated replacement statues that are in various stages of construction. Missouri is slated to send a statue of Harry Truman, Michigan a statue of Gerald Ford, and Arizona a statue of Barry Goldwater. Ohio is expected to replace the statue of Gov. William Allen with one of Thomas Edison.

After all these replacements are made, there will still be only nine women in the National Statuary Hall Collection. If Maryland does the right thing and replaces the Hanson statue with one of Tubman, a 10th woman, that will still be a paltry number relative to the number of women in our country.

When sexism is blatant and overt, it's easy to detect and defend against it. But "sins of omission" can be even more damaging since they are subtle, insidious and persistent. The absence of women in the Capitol sends the message that this is a democracy of men, by men, and for men. It tells the millions of girls who visit the Capitol, "you're not part of this story," and the foreign dignitaries that walk the halls of Congress that as a nation, we don't practice what we preach.

In my profession, psychology, we know the visual overrides the verbal; what you see is more powerful than what you hear. We'd like our daughters to believe they can be anything they want, but they don't hear "Yes, you can" when what they see is, "No you can't."

The most powerful messages are verbally and visually congruent. It's time to send young girls a clear message by rewriting women who have been written out of history back into history. It's time for the statues in National Statuary Hall to not only represent great Americans, but to more accurately represent the demographics of America.

Otherwise, I would urge the U.S. surgeon general to put a sign outside the New Capitol Visitors Center that reads, "Warning: this tour may be hazardous to your daughter's psychological health."

Lynette Long is president of Equal Visibility Everywhere, the organization that conceptualized the project to put Harriet Tubman in National Statuary Hall. She is also a licensed psychologist in Chevy Chase. Her e-mail is drlynettelong@aol.com.

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