Democracy Dies in Darkness

Local | Perspective

A woman may finally get a monumental tribute on the Mall, and she’s naked? Really?

By Petula Dvorak

October 4, 2017 at 3:04 PM

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This promotional video shows the statue of a nude woman that activists have applied for a permit to install on the Mall facing the White House, as part of the ­“Catharsis on the Mall” event. (Connor Scalzi)

It figures.

Finally, a woman might be celebrated in grand, monumental way in the nation's capital.

And she's naked.

Tall, strong, towering and steel, defiant in her stance, yes. But stripped of clothing, as though she were an offering to the former Miss Universe beauty pageant aficionado who now occupies the White House.

Organizers of the November "Catharsis Festival" are asking for permission to have the powerful, 45-foot-tall sculpture that presided over Burning Man moved to the Mall — staring down the White House — next month. For four months.

A rendering of the 45-foot statue of a naked woman proposed by a group of activists and artists with “Catharsis on the Mall.” (Photo by Galen Oakes)

Related: [This 45-foot statue of a naked woman could be coming to the Mall for four months]

Seriously, why does she have to be naked?

Why can't she be like Freedom, the beautiful bronze statue atop the Capitol Dome, with her sword and a challenging gaze, daring anyone to grab anything

It's already clear that our nation has a hard time celebrating or memorializing real women in our culture.

We're 51 percent of the population, but a futuristic archaeologist unearthing the rubble in a post-apocalyptic Mall would find little evidence we even existed.

Among 44 memorials in the Mall space, only two besides Freedom include women. One is the tucked-away likeness of Eleanor Roosevelt (who rates a less prominent place on the Franklin Delano Roosevelt monument than his dog) and the powerful statue of Vietnam War nurses.

This blind spot isn't just a Washington thing.

Of the more than 5,000 public outdoor sculptures across America that are entered in the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Art Inventories Catalog, less than 400 include women. That's 8 percent.

It's even more absurd in New York's Central Park, where women are only honored as fictional characters: Mother Goose, Alice in Wonderland and Juliet, alongside her Romeo, of course.

They've got men all the way back to King Wladyslaw II Jagiello of Poland covered. Animals from eagles to the famous sled dog Balto are honored in bronze. And no, the one of a cougar doesn't count. Don't even try that.

But women? MIA.

Related: [This woman’s name appears on the Declaration of Independence. So why don’t we know her story?]

Wait, wait, wait. There was an attempt in the 1960s to get a woman in Central Park. Oh, wait. It was Mary Poppins. Never mind.

So when America does get a chance to pay tribute to the majority of its population and the ones who gave birth to every single one of the United States' 324 million people, we're mostly remembered as literary characters or naked?

It's not that women haven't noticed and haven't been trying for years to change this in Washington.

On May 12, 1929, Daisy Calhoun held a groundbreaking ceremony for her big project — the Mothers' Memorial in Washington.

"The world has memorialized fighters, thinkers, monarchs and prophets, sea kings and generals," Calhoun said. "But as yet no monument to the mother genius had been raised in imperishable stone, beautified by art and sculpture, to proclaim the debt each mortal owes to the woman who risked her own life to give life."

Yup, you guessed it. It was never built.

They rarely are. Lynette Long can tell you. Her group, Equal Visibility Everywhere, been fighting for years to get Harriet Tubman and Amelia Earhart among the 100 statues in the Capitol's statuary hall. Ninety-one of the 100 are men.

She's still fighting.

Even after what seemed like a huge victory for women and African Americans last year, when the U.S. Treasury Department announced Harriet Tubman would replace President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, current Treasury Secretary Steve T. Mnuchin said he would not commit to following through on that plan.

Related: [Whether she’s on the $20 bill or not, Harriet Tubman made men pay for underestimating her]

For years, folks have been trying to get Tubman properly memorialized and have been fighting unsuccessfully for a smidgen of memorial recognition for women like Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross, or Prudence Wright, Revolutionary War militia commander and mother of 11. It's a little sting that the woman finally landing in a prominent place — temporarily — won't have any clothes on.

I know, it's a little delicious and naughty, in a totally nonsexual way, and maybe even empowering to imagine the statue that presided over Burning Man in the Nevada desert coming all the way to Washington to stare down the White House. Especially right next to the decidedly unfeminine Washington Monument.

It's like a giant version of that little girl statue that appeared on Wall Street one day, eye-to-eye with the bull.

Women can be that powerful, even with their clothes on.

Twitter: @petulad

Read more Petula Dvorak:

Harriet Tubman will be on the $20 bill, but still doesn't rate a statue in the Capitol

Will hundreds killed and hurt by gunfire matter to Trump and lawamkers?

Why an abortion provider reluctantly sold his clinic to an antiabortion group

What's one of America's most dangerous jobs? It's not what you think.


Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things.

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