In the Rotunda of the United States Capitol stands a carving of three women who were pioneers in the women’s suffrage movement — Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott — as well as a rough-hewn fourth pillar of marble, meant to represent the women who would continue fighting for women’s rights. Its unfinished look was deliberate, meant to signify that the fight for women’s rights was also unfinished.
Six months after the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote was ratified, on Susan B. Anthony’s 101st birthday, more than 70 women’s organizations gathered with members of Congress to watch the unveiling of this tribute to the Founding Mothers of the suffrage movement. Carved by artist Adelaide Johnson at the request of the National Woman’s Party, this statue, named “The Woman Movement,” came with the following gilt inscription: “Woman first denied a soul, then called mindless, now arisen, declaring herself an entity to be reckoned.”
Literally the next day, Congress ordered that the statue be moved to the basement and the “blasphemous” inscription scraped off. They also changed the name to a very generic “The Portrait Monument.” Off it went to join brooms and mops in a dark, closed off area of the Capitol. Unfinished work, indeed.
Stanton, an abolitionist and eventually mother of seven, was president of the National Woman Suffrage Association from 1865 to 1893. She was the author of the women’s “Declaration of Rights and Sentiments,” which she read at the Seneca Falls, N.Y., convention in 1848. The Declaration and its 11 resolutions laid out demands for social and political equality, including the most controversial of those demands: the right for women to vote. Tireless in her work on women’s rights, she died in 1902.
Anthony, also an abolitionist and a temperance advocate, joined with Stanton in 1851, embarking on a decades-long friendship and collaboration to promote woman’s suffrage. She was described as the “Napoleon” of the suffragist movement because of her organizational, tactical and persuasive skill. She appeared before every Congress between 1869 and 1906 to advocate for women having the right to vote. She died in 1906, weeks after addressing another national suffrage convention and telling her audience, “Failure is impossible.”
Mott was a Quaker reformer and preacher, who worked for abolition, peace and equality for women in jobs and education. She became Stanton’s mentor and angered by being shut out of the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, they were galvanized into holding a women’s rights convention. Together, they organized the 1848 Seneca Falls convention. She once commented that she had grown up “so thoroughly imbued with women’s rights that it was the most important question” of her life. She died in 1880, a full four decades before passage of the 19th Amendment.
Perhaps it was the strength and power of those three avant-garde women that made an all-male Congress so uncomfortable that they shipped them off to the broom closet.
Seventy-five years later, in 1996, a resolution to bring the statue back to the Rotunda finally gained enough support to pass. (It still had its detractors, including Republican women legislators who said the statue was “too ugly” and “lacking in historical merit” to warrant moving it to the Rotunda.)
It also faced a funding obstacle. Even though the Capitol Preservation Commission had a $23 million budget to use for maintenance and acquisitions, and even though Congress had recently spent $750,000 to restore the fictional female Statue of Freedom, Speaker Newt Gingrich refused to authorize the $75,000 it would take to make the move. So, women’s groups around the country mobilized and raised the necessary funds in a matter of a few months. Finally, on May 14, 1997, the statue was returned to the Rotunda, where it sits today.
It still doesn’t have the gilt inscription.
Holly Richardson, a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune, is grateful for those women who spent their lives advocating for a cause they believed in so strongly and who never gave up, even though success did come in their lifetimes.