Unfinished Business

Unfinished Business

by Janice K. Bryant

In the battle over a feminist monument, 150 years of racial tension resurfaces and a question reemerges: Is history written in stone?

A statue of three suffragists, created more than 70 years ago, has been the focal point of anger, confusion and controversy since its conception. Now in the latest chapter of the saga involving the artwork known as the Portrait Monument, a minor war has erupted around issues of feminism, race and how best to represent history. On one side are traditional feminists determined to commemorate three of the nineteenth-century activists who helped win women the right to vote. On the other, a group of African-American women — some feminist, some not — who regard the efforts of the first group as the most recent example of the disregard, even the racism, that has plagued the American feminist movement since its first wave.

The statue, also known as the Woman Suffrage Statue, was a gift from the National Women’s Party, which had commissioned the sculptor Adelaide Johnson to create the work. It portrays the likeness of three women whose dedication to woman suffrage was born in the crucible of their antislavery activities. Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), an abolitionist and temperance worker, served as president of the National Woman Suffrage Association. It was she who proposed the constitutional amendment that gave women the right to vote, though it did not pass until years after her death. Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) also served as president of the National Woman Suffrage Association, from 1865 to 1893. Stanton was the author of the Woman’s Bill of Rights, which she made public at the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Lucretia Mott (1793-1880) was a Quaker preacher and activist whose work spanned the abolition, peace and suffrage movements. She was the primary organizer of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, generally regarded as the formal start of the movement to gain women’s rights.

Few people can deny the importance of these women in the history of the women’s movement and the history of America; a statue in the Capitol Rotunda to honor them seems appropriate. So why has the Portrait Monument been such a problem? As far as the National Political Congress of Black Women (NPCBW) is concerned, the issue is who is missing from the group: Sojourner Truth, the nineteenth-century African-American activist.

Born into slavery in approximately 1797 and freed in 1827 when slavery was abolished in New York State, Isabella Baumfree changed her name to Sojourner Truth after a vision from God that instructed her to travel and preach. Active in defense of both abolition and suffrage, she was known as a powerful speaker, and gave her most well-known speech, “Ain’t I a Woman,” at the Women’s Rights Convention of 1851 in Akron, Ohio.

In the spring of 1997, C. DeLores Tucker, the chair of the NPCBW, objected that the women depicted in the Power Monument statue were being touted as The Foremothers, yet Sojourner Truth, who worked and traveled on behalf of woman suffrage as hard as any woman, has not bee included. Here, Tucker said, it is happening once again. Black women were betrayed by white suffragists then, and now white feminists are doing it again. Tucker was not alone in her outrage; a coalition of groups descended on Congress to ask that Truth not be left out of the commemoration. Move the Portrait Monument to the Rotunda without Sojourner Truth? The sisters were not having it.

A Tortured History

From the beginning, when the statue was derogatorily named “Three Ladies in a Bathtub,” this has been a star-crossed project. Dedicated in the Capitol Rotunda on February 15, 1921, the Portrait Monument was promptly moved to a storage closet dubbed “the Crypt” in the Capitol’s basement. The space was renovated in 1963 and opened to the public, the statue remained there until May 10, 1997 when, at the behest of Congress, it was returned to the all-male, statue-lined Rotunda in place of the statue of Rhode Island’s founder, Roger Williams — but only for a single year, while a government commission determines the statue’s ultimate fate.

For a time in 1995, when the Senate approved a measure to have it placed in the Rotunda, the statue appeared to be on its way to permanent display. Enter Newt Gingrich and several Republican women, led by Rep. Sue Myrick of North Carolina. It was Myrick who demanded that no public funds be used for the $75,000 project, in spite of the reality that public funds had been used to create and maintain every other statue in the Rotunda. Statue supporters persevered, however, and formed a group called the Woman Suffrage Statue Campaign, headed by Joan Meacham, vice president of the National Museum of Women’s History, in order to raise the money.

A Little Child Leads

A 9-year-old Arizona girl, Arlys Angelique Endres, listened carefully one morning as her mother read an Arizona Republican op-ed piece by Barbara Yost, which described the singularly peculiar attitude Congress was exhibiting about the Portrait Monument. Surely, said little Arlys, Susan B. Anthony shouldn’t be in the basement. If people knew about this problem, the youngster felt sure they would help. So an agitated Arlys began writing letters; then she put notices in Coin magazine. She even spoke before the League of Women Voters. And soon her “everybody send a Susan B. Anthony dollar but paper dollars will do” exhortations garnered enormous publicity and goodwill, as well as $2,000 for the statue campaign and a $10,000 National Geographic scholarship for young Arlys. It was with this kind of grassroots effort that the statue’s supporters waged a nationwide “One Dollar Campaign” and soon reached their $75,000 goal. In September 1996, the House finally passed the resolution for the statue’s move. At last, it seemed, the Rotunda would no longer be an all-male bastion.

More Than a Black-White Issue

But that was before Tucker’s vociferous opposition. Once she and other black women’s groups were on record as being against the movement of the statue until a compromise could be reached, Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney (D.-Georgia) drafted legislation that would stop the statue from being moved. And more than one person has suggested that a figure of Truth should be added to the existing statue, most likely by using the fingerlike marble projection that is part of the monument.

Yet not all black women were — or are — in agreement on the issue. Some approve of the Portrait Monument and want it to stay just the way it is. Adele Logan Alexander, assistant professor of history at George Washington University, has conducted considerable research on African-American women and their experiences in the suffrage movement. Alexander has known of the statue for years. “I saw it in the basement 25 years ago,” she explains, “and I view it as a historic piece.” Alexander comes from a long line of African-American feminists. “I have a letter from my grandmother to Mary Church Terrell encouraging black women to join the 1913 suffrage march, so that we would be represented,” she says. Calling herself “something of a purist,” Alexander believes “it is wrong to start trying to re-create a piece of art — created in the past — into an image we have today.

“We don’t want to look at Michelangelo’s ‘David’ and say ‘Let’s make him different.’ You don’t change art to choose what you want to say at a certain time.”

On an April edition of the Pacifica Radio show Democracy Now! the show’s host, Amy Goodman, moderated an on-air conversation between Meacham and Tucker in which Meacham also harkened back to Michelangelo: “You might think in terms of Michelangelo’s painting of the ‘Last Supper,’ and today we would say, a woman should be there, and we can’t really go back and place Mary there.”

What about adding Sojourner Truth to the existing statue? “That thin piece of unfinished marble that is there would definitely not be large enough,” Meacham said. “She would look too small and too out of place.” Adelaide Johnson left that unfinished marble as “the mark of the woman of the future. All the other women that would help women gain their right to equality, the unfinished portion, because she [Johnson] realized it was not going to happen in her lifetime.”

Dr. Janette Hoston Harris, president of the Sojourner Truth Crusade Committee, has no qualms about correcting the record. “Our mission should be to correct history,” Harris says. “If we’re not correcting history, what are we preserving for our future? That’s why we have black history books. The standard history books used to only show us with slavery. But we have done much more than that.”

The syndicated newspaper columnist Dorothy Gilliam pointed out that the conservative columnist George Will was on the same side as Tucker. But Will was not so much in support of adding a statue of Truth as he was against adding the monument in any configuration. Apparently, he didn’t like poor Roger Williams’s being evicted from the Rotunda to make room for a group of turn-of-the-century feminists.

Meacham cites a host of practical and logistical reasons that the statue had to be moved: Contracts had already been signed, and “we found that it was going to cost a lot of money in terms of hundreds of thousands of dollars to return the $75,000 to all the members.” And because her organization had used the U.S. mail to solicit and receive the contributions, there was the possibility of mail-fraud charges if the statue didn’t go up in the Rotunda as promised.

Meacham said in the Pacifica interview, and several other venues, that the suffragists-statue organization hoped to work with Tucker’s group to find a compromise that would meet everyone’s needs. “In 1998, it’s the 150th anniversary of the first Women’s Rights Convention, which was in Seneca Falls, New York. . . .We would like to put in the legislation immediately that the statue that would replace this one in the Rotunda would be a new statue with Sojourner Truth there. . . .The museum [National Museum of Women’s History] has commissioned a bust of Sojourner Truth . . . and we are in the process of asking if it could be at all possible to have this bust next to the statue that will be moved into the Rotunda.

“We are also working on a plaque that will go next to the statue, not only mentioning Sojourner Truth and recognizing her contributions and her work with the three suffragist leaders, but we could also have this plaque right there about Sojourner Truth if we cannot place the bust next to the statue.” At the rededication ceremony on June 26, a female African-American minister spoke of Sojourner Truth’s accomplishments. Yet Tucker has been adamant about wanting to keep the statue in the basement, as this interchange shows:
Tucker: [Meachem] said that the three white women were the first suffragists. Let me just say that I can’t agree that they were the first. I believe they were the first, yes, white women, but Sojourner Truth was out trying to get registered, working with Ulysses Grant in his campaign. But more than that —
Goodman: Trying to vote also —
Tucker: Yes, trying to vote, yes. But more than that, Sojourner Truth stepped back. These three women betrayed her because when the [suffrage] bill was in the House, it was passed, and then when it went to the Senate, the southern senators said, “We will not pass it unless you women agree that black women will not be able to vote.” That was wrong — that these women stepped back then and left that principle, while Sojourner was out there speaking. In fact, at the convention in 1851, they tried to stop her from speaking because they didn’t want it associated with the abolitionist movement.

The Real Argument.

In some ways, the argument about the Portrait Monument has less to do with whose image is displayed in the Rotunda than it does with the historic tension between black and white feminists, a tension that has surfaced periodically for more than a century. It is difficult for many white feminists to accept that, though Anthony, Stanton and Mott were progressives in their time, and even enjoyed good working relationships with black suffragists, they remained captive to the racism and stereotypes about black people common in the nineteenth century. As Adele Logan Alexander writes: “Vocal members of . . .the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) — Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton among them — sometimes openly expressed their resentment at black people, whom they considered ingrates who once had welcomed their support on behalf of abolition but then ultimately deserted women in their own time of political need. Stanton went so far as to write almost approvingly of the lynching of a black Tennessean accused of raping a white woman. She implied that granting African-American men the right to vote essentially gave them license to rape and even suggested that universal manhood suffrage (meaning, in this particular context, suffrage for black men) could ‘culminate in fearful outrages on womanhood, especially in the southern states.’ ” The disagreement symbolizes the schism between black and white feminists that exists today, that existed after the Civil War when Elizabeth Cady Stanton got angry because she was told that black men would not support woman’s suffrage in lieu of blacks getting the vote because they felt that “this is the Negro’s hour.” Stanton was so incensed that “the vehemence and racial invective” of her arguments stunned the audience at the American Equal Rights Association meeting in 1868.

Though it was a schism that was formally healed in the years preceding suffrage, many feminists of color have continued to feel ill at ease with white feminists. “Sadly,” says feminist and cultural critic bell hooks, “the feminist movement did little to really bridge the political gaps separating black women and white women from one another.”

A single peripheral issue, in particular, crystallizes all that is wrong between the two camps. The NPCBW has compiled a document called “20 Reasons to Oppose Celebration of the Portrait Monument. Without the Inclusion of Sojourner Truth.” One item in particular, reason number 12, stands out: “The women’s movement must make visible what has become invisible today — the continuing exclusion and denial of the work of women of color to women’s suffrage. In 1995, the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., was refused permission to march in the 75th Anniversary recreation [sic] of the 1913 suffrage march on the grounds that the Deltas had not marched in 1913. In a humiliating effort to reclaim their rightful place, the Deltas had to obtain proof from the National Archives to be permitted to march in 1995. . . .In 1997 — as in 1995 and 1913 marches and in the 1921 statue dedication, the movement remains stained with racism — this must not be the legacy that we leave our children.”

The Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., did make a concerted effort to be sure they were included in the 75th Anniversary march, to have their rightful place — a place that many black women assumed on their own during the original march. In fact, Paula Giddings’s book, a study of the Deltas, In Search of Sisterhood: Delta Sigma Theta and the Challenge of the Black Sorority Movement, opens with a description of the women’s participation in the 1913 march.

For the 75th anniversary march, “I was there from the beginning to make sure that Deltas weren’t overlooked because of lack of knowledge,” says program director Ella McNair. She served on the parade committee. “Our mission was to educate, in case there were those who didn’t know the extent of our involvement.”

McNair concedes that in 1995 the Deltas did encounter a few logistical and communication problems: mainly lack of information about their position in the march. When they couldn’t find out where they were supposed to go, “We decided where we were going to be. We decided where we would march and we decided we would take our rightful place on the program.” And no, there was no outward resistance, but McNair says the Deltas had to be persistent and vigilant.

An Unresolved Dilemma

On June 26, the statue was rededicated and placed in the Rotunda, without Sojourner Truth — and without a resolution to this continuing controversy. At press time, the Florida Congressman Alcee Hastings had entered the fray with a bill to “procure a bust or statue of Sojourner Truth and cause such bust or statue to be placed in a suitable location in the Capitol, as determined by the Joint Committee,” not to exceed $50,000, which will be paid for by the House of Representatives. Sojourner Truth Committee president Dr. Janette Hoston Harris says it’s unfortunate that Rep. Hastings allowed others to entice him into drafting the legislation. “It doesn’t speak to the issue,” she says. The committee says it includes more than 120 black organizations, and they will not let this issue die. They will continue to demonstrate against the statue, and they want it draped in black until Sojourner Truth is represented along with Anthony, Stanton and Mott. “We feel very strongly about this,” Tucker says, “We’re sorry that they don’t want to go into the twenty-first century in truth. The suffragist name is a sham of history.”

Both Tucker and Meacham have become increasingly bitter as the disagreement has escalated. Each feels the other side has completely misrepresented their position. It’s possible that the opportunity for reconciliation and compromise has passed. If that’s true, the 150th anniversary of the first Women’s Rights Convention will come and go, and the Portrait Monument will continue to enshrine an incomplete vision of a great movement.

Janice K. Bryant is a writer and radio producer in New York City.