Harriet Tubman will officially be the face of a $20 bill.
And, sure, it’s great news that the defiant, brave and inspiring abolitionist will replace slaveholder Andrew Jackson on the currency of America’s ATMs.
But hold the confetti, because the fight to get a proper honor for Tubman — or just about any American woman — is far from over.
You won’t find Tubman’s likeness on the Mall. And you won’t find the African American, Maryland-born heroine among the giants honored in the U.S. Capitol, despite a long fight to have Maryland replace its statue of John Hanson (I know, who?) with one honoring Tubman.
Nope. Didn’t happen.
But that’s the case with our continued mansplaining of U.S. history.
If our civilization came to an end and sometime in the future, explorers hacked through the kudzu and plastic grocery bags to discover our rubble and figure out who we were, they would have to assume that women were a novelty in this society.
Because as far as memorial Washington and monumental America are concerned, we’re one big nation of men — mostly white men.
Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. providing the only bit of diversity. (Eleanor Roosevelt does get a statue within the FDR Memorial, though it’s the president’s dog, Fala, that rates a more prominent spot in the depiction of Roosevelt’s career.) Even the abstract Washington Monument has, um, zero feminine qualities.
Aside from Eleanor, only the statue of three Vietnam nurses on the Mall suggests that women had anything to do with the founding and building of our country.
Sure, there’s Mary McLeod Bethune in Lincoln Park. But that’s 12 blocks behind the Capitol. It’s not the nation’s front yard, where we honor our men.
And that’s the case all over the nation. Of more than 5,000 public outdoor sculptures of noteworthy Americans, just under 400 honor women, according to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Art Inventories Catalog.
That’s 8 percent. But women are 51 percent of our population, remember? And much the same principle is in effect when it comes to the country’s streets, plazas, buildings, schools and libraries. How many are named to commemorate women?
Let’s go back to Statuary Hall in the Capitol, where each state gets to place two statues of their heroes.
White dude, white dude. Old white dude, young white dude. There’s one Latino guy, a Hawaiian man, some Native Americans. Oh, and a bunch of white supremacists.
Of the 100 statues on display, 91 are men.
It wouldn’t be acceptable if the roles were reversed, said Lynette Long, a Chevy Chase psychologist who is also the founder of Equal Visibility Everywhere, an advocacy group for women being equally represented in our nation’s imagery and one of the leaders in getting Tubman on the $20 bill.
The lack of female representation on currency, memorials and other important symbols sends a message, she said, that “men are important, men are leaders, men are presidents.” While Long hailed the Treasury Department decision to honor Tubman on the $20 bill, she vowed not to be satisfied “until we are equally represented in our nation’s symbols and icons.”
Our states seem to think that only nine women deserve any acknowledgment in Statuary Hall. No Prudence Wright, Revolutionary War militia commander and mother of 11; no aviator Amelia Earhart; no Stephanie Kwolek, inventor of Kevlar; no Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross.
Five years ago, Maryland considered legislation — backed by then-Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) — to commission a statue of Tubman to replace John Hanson, a patriot and member of the original Continental Congress. (Hanson’s got a highway. We hear his name on the radio traffic report every 10 minutes — isn’t that enough?) That bill died after a bruising fight between the Tubman supporters and traditionalists exercised about scrapping one of the (yawn) dozens of statues of white men already in the hall.
The Tubman statue was revisited last month, when Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) — who is running for the Senate against a black woman, Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D-Md.) — proposed donating a statue of Tubman to the Capitol’s collection. That would be part of a wider exhibit, which includes foreign leaders such as Vaclav Havel and Winston Churchill, as well as civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks. But it wouldn’t replace the two white men representing Maryland in the hall of 100.
So why has it been easier to get Harriet Tubman on a $20 bill — the ubiquitous currency of every cash machine, pocket and black market across the globe — than to get her into a hallowed hall that is curated by the country’s power brokers?
Statuary Hall is like an exclusive club. And the folks who decide which two statues represent each state are mostly male lawmakers who also get to decide how they want their own reality represented.
Know any other elite groups of 100 who allegedly represent the nation but look very little like it?
Hmm, let me think.
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