Of all the excuses given for why a statue of three suffragettes could not be moved into the Capitol Rotunda, Joan Wages thought the most disheartening was the observation that the women, as depicted, were rather unattractive.
Wages and a group of women had been pushing members of Congress to move the statue, formally called the Portrait Monument. It had been donated to the country by the National Women’s Party in February 1921, a year after the passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, and placed in the Crypt, on the bottom floor of the Capitol Building. Each movement forward was halted by another objection: The Rotunda could not support the 13-ton statue. It would be wrong to spend taxpayers’ money to move it. But sniping by some members of Congress, including a few female lawmakers, about how the women looked, as opposed to what they had accomplished, seemed way out of line.
“That was just discouraging on many levels,” Wages recalled in a recent interview. But she and other members of the Woman Suffrage Statue Campaign, who had started the effort to move the statue in 1995, the 75th anniversary of women getting the vote, kept pushing. “Just after I heard the comment about how the women in the statue were ugly, I met with Rep. Pat Schroeder, who said, ‘Have they looked at Abraham Lincoln lately?’ We had a good laugh and continued moving ahead on the campaign.”
Finally, on Mother’s Day 1997 — with money the women raised on their own — the statue of Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony was hoisted from the basement to the Rotunda. It was the first success in what has turned into a two-decade effort toward an even more ambitious quest — the construction of the National Women’s History Museum on the Mall.
Earlier this year, a bill was introduced in the House by Reps. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.) to create “a comprehensive women’s history museum” within the Smithsonian. The group is trying to get support for a companion measure in the Senate.
Wages, who is retiring after a decade as president and chief executive of the museum, doesn’t expect the same type of resistance to the museum that the group ran into over moving the statue, but she and others pushing the project acknowledge that it has been hard to get lawmakers’ attention this year, with so many issues — both legislative and legal — swirling around the Trump administration.
In the meantime, the board and staff have been raising awareness and money for the project through its website, educational programs and fundraising galas. Over the weekend, at a Women Making History Awards brunch in Los Angeles, the museum honored actress Kerry Washington, Instagram executive Marne Levine and SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell. In May, former first lady Laura Bush was among the honorees at an event awards program in Washington.
Susan Whiting, chairman of the board of the National Women’s History Museum, said the introduction of the bill to establish the museum, which came after a bipartisan commission endorsed the project, was a “huge step forward.” The group raised a little over $1 million to pay for the commission’s work and estimates it will need to raise $400 million to build the museum, if it is ultimately approved by Congress.
If the current bill doesn’t pass, a spokesman for the women’s museum said the group will continue to lobby members of Congress to introduce legislation until it eventually passes.
The effort to establish a national museum to tell the story of African Americans dates to the early 1900s, but it wasn’t until 2003 that Congress passed a bill to create the National Museum of African American History and Culture and former president George W. Bush signed it into law. The museum opened last year.
Maloney said that earlier this month, the House passed an amendment she proposed to add another $2 million to the Smithsonian for the women’s history initiative, which would hire scholars and curators to scour the museum’s various collections to find and amplify women’s stories. She said that she was “incredibly proud” that a majority of House members have endorsed her and Royce’s bill.
This summer, Maloney reached out to the Trump administration to support the museum and said she had “gotten positive responses from my discussions with the administration.” The Trump administration did not respond to requests for comment.
The statue was donated to the nation during the 67th Congress. From 1921 to 1923, three women served in the House and one in the Senate. The first woman in the upper chamber, Rebecca Latimer Felton, a Democrat from Georgia, was appointed in 1922 to fill a vacancy. She served one day.
Currently there are 105 women in Congress, 21 in the Senate and 84 in the House. Women make up just less than 20 percent of the members of Congress, far below their 51 percent of the country’s population.
The effort to move the statute was renewed in 1995, the same year that Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) joined Congress, and as the fight heated up, she eagerly joined in. The placement of the statute in the basement, she said, was “atrocious and insulting and a reflection of some of the thinking about women, where they stood in the country or stood in their roles in the United States Congress.”
As plans were being finalized to move the statue to the Rotunda, a group of black women protested that the statue should include a likeness of Sojourner Truth, a former slave who became an abolitionists and women’s rights activist. Jackson Lee later helped lead the effort to get a bust of Truth installed in the U.S. Capitol in 2006.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) arrived in Congress in 2003, six years after the suffragette statue had been installed in the Rotunda. She said she agreed with moving the statue up, where it can be seen more easily by tourists. Blackburn, who supports the effort to establish a women’s museum, said the suffragists statue’s more prominent placement gives her the chance to do a bit of bragging “about the importance my state, Tennessee, played in being the 36th state for ratification for the right for women to vote.”