The activists had wanted to place a 45-foot-tall statue of a nude woman on prime land on the Mall. They said it would be a symbol of feminine strength and power, a sign that women should never feel ashamed in their bodies.
But the National Park Service last month rejected a permit for such a large and heavy structure on land near the Washington Monument, scuttling the activists' project.
Now, activists have a new plan. They want to erect a 26-foot-tall scaffold covered on two sides by 26-foot-tall digitized portraits of a nude woman.
The Park Service hasn't finalized the permit for the structure, but Mike Litterst, a spokesman for the agency, said it is in the final stages of issuing it.
The structure would be part of a three-day "Catharsis on the Mall" festival, starting Nov. 10, that has been dubbed the "Burning Man" of Washington. Burning Man, an annual desert festival outside Reno, Nev., is known for building a hippie-like community that promotes art, self-expression, inclusiveness and civic engagement.
"It's about making women feel safe. You can feel safe and be nude," said Natalie White, a spokeswoman for the event. "It's a healing image and it's about making women feel safe in their environments."
White said that after the Park Service rejected the group's initial permit application, women behind Catharsis decided they still wanted to promote a message of female empowerment. Twenty-seven women involved in the project submitted nude photos of themselves to an artist. In each photo, the woman had one hand over her heart, the other on her stomach.
An artist then combined and manipulated the images to form a single image of a nude woman. The front and back of that digitized woman will be displayed on two sides of the scaffold, White said. The festival also will have a tent where women can take photos of themselves that will be projected and morphed onto the image of the woman on the scaffold.
White said activists are making the best of the situation while still fighting to bring the original 45-foot statue to the Mall. They argue the Park Service's rejection of its permit was an infringement on their First Amendment rights and say they are considering filing a lawsuit.
"We will not be silenced just because the National Park Service wants to take away our statue," White said. "If one group's First Amendment rights are being infringed upon, then that puts everyone's First Amendment rights in jeopardy."
The original statue measured just over 47 feet, including its base, weighing 32,000 pounds. The statue, called "R-Evolution," is in San Francisco, and activists have raised about $100,000 to transport and reassemble it on the Mall. The plan was to keep the statue in place near the Washington Monument for four months.
The National Park Service said it rejected the original permit application because the agency was concerned the statue would damage the Mall's turf. It also slightly exceeded the 45-foot height limit of temporary structures on the Mall.
White said her group hasn't returned the money donated to transport the statue across the country. It still hopes for a permit to display the statue in time for the first anniversary of the Women's March on Jan. 21.
No matter its fate, the "R-Evolution" statue by artist Marco Cochrane won't make it in time for the third annual Catharsis festival this month. Each year, the event has revolved around a different theme, with the first two years focusing on healing from the drug war and recovering from trauma. This year's theme is "nurturing the heart" and equal rights.
The Park Service last year denied Catharsis organizers a permit to light a 30-foot-tall wooden structure on fire as part of a demonstration calling for more funding for veterans and research for post-traumatic stress disorder. The group challenged that decision, and a federal judge sided with the government, citing concerns that embers from the fire could ignite other structures.