The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Her 5th-grade idea was a monument to women. It just became law.

Raya Kenney at age 10, searching the National Mall for possible sites for her proposed memorial to the women who worked on the home front during World War II. (Family photo)

Some college kids are heading back to campus this month with a fatter bank account after working seasonal jobs. Or maybe they made fantastic travel memories on a winter break trip.

Raya Kenney got her own law passed — a bright spot in the massive Omnibus Appropriations Bill.

Kenney possesses that defining, Gen Z insistence that we tell the truth about who we are as a nation, loudly challenging the generations before her to reconsider the societal status quo. It’s an optimistic criticism we see in climate activist Greta Thunberg, gun violence activist David Hogg and Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.).

It began as a fifth-grade project for Kenney, who is now 20 years old but was half that when she got an assignment that would change her life: to build a model monument in D.C. for someone who hadn’t been honored yet.

Kenney had just seen one of the best American films ever made (at least I think so) — “A League of Their Own.” As she watched the story of the women’s baseball league created during World War II over and over again, she wondered, “What else did women do during World War II?”

When she walked around her hometown and looked at the monuments and memorials in D.C. that tell our nation’s history, it’s all man, men, horse, war, man, horse, men.

Where are all the women in our monuments and memorials?

Among 44 memorials in the National Mall space, only two include real women. (There are symbolic likenesses of women — Freedom and Justice — along with various nymphs and groupies beautifying public memorials throughout the city.) But in the space dedicated to American history, Eleanor Roosevelt is tucked away in a place on the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial less prominent than Fala, his Scottish terrier. (A powerful statue of Vietnam War nurses erected 30 years ago was also championed by a woman, Diane Carlson Evans.)

As Kenney’s fifth-grade research led her to Rosie the Riveter and 18 million civilian women who went to work and changed the American workforce forever, she wondered where their movie and monument and stories were.

One of the few federal nods to their accomplishments was a quote from Oveta Culp Hobby, one of the Rosies who died in 1995, on the World War II Memorial: “Women who stepped up were measured as citizens of the nation, not as women. … This was a people’s war, and everyone was in it.”

Kenney wanted to hear more. So she went to Ace Hardware to get supplies and put together her class project — a V-formation of black granite pillars that would each depict a job — “codebreakers, pilots, machinists, butchers, engineers, lumberjacks, farmers” — that women took on during the war effort.

Sold as a civic duty to women desperately needed to fill jobs that men had long said they couldn’t do, they took on grueling work and killed it — revealing the hypocrisy of the social order in the process.

While many later returned to the home, their accomplishments largely forgotten as the ’50s housewife became the American ideal after men came back from war, it would be their daughters who took to the streets 20 years later to burn bras and loudly demand women’s rights.

Kenney’s project got an A, of course. But she knew it could do more.

She began looking for Rosies. And connected with Phyllis Gould and Mae Krier, who worked as a welder and a riveter, respectively, during the war. Both pushed for recognition of the women who radically changed their lives to support the war, when the nation asked women to join the workforce and supported them with an incredible day-care system, equal pay and an equitable workplace.

Gould, who died at 99 years old in 2021, helped establish March 21 as National Rosie the Riveter Day. Krier, who is 96, helped create a Congressional Gold Medal to honor her fellow workers.

“The smaller details in their story just made me laugh,” Kenney said. “One of them said: ‘I was getting paid more than my husband and I was spending it on lingerie.’ I loved hearing the women find their place in the workforce.”

Creating a monument isn’t easy. An idea needs a foundation, a law, funding, repeated site and design approvals. But Kenney, who is now a sophomore at Kenyon College in Ohio — is up for it.

After creating a foundation, National Memorial to the Women Who Worked on the Home Front, she had to find sponsors for a bill that would authorize the creation of the monument. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), an Iraq War veteran, went all-in.

Kenney testified before a congressional committee in 2020. “I went to a lot of different meetings with a lot of congressional staffers,” she said. “I remember the first time I was in the Cannon Building, wearing my small heels, I just felt so important, I felt so bureaucratic, hearing the clicking of my heels in the hallways.”

The sound grew old, for sure, as the process dragged on. But the optimism of youth withstood the grinding wheels of Congress. It passed the House almost unanimously, with 425 members voting for it and only Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) voting no.

And then, a year later, it finally passed the Senate with bipartisan support.

On Jan. 4, President Biden signed it into law.

When she heard, Kenney went upstairs in the shop selling “made in D.C.” goods, where she worked over break, and sobbed with joy.

Her dream site would be a plot of land near Constitution Gardens on the Mall that is near the massive World War II Memorial and the former site of a munitions factory. But space on the Mall is at a premium, and any addition to the hallowed place will require more legislation, and design and site approval.

Then there’s the money. Her foundation has to raise millions to build it.

Although the women answered their government’s call to serve, no government money will go to a monument to their legacy. The Commemorative Works Act makes that the case for all monuments.

Kenney has already been working on this project for half her life. But like the riveters who persisted, she won’t give up on honoring their stories.

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