This month, during our “The Feminist Movement in Art” exhibit, some Art League staffers are reflecting on important works of feminist art that have influenced and made a mark on their lives. Communications Director Erica Fortwengler writes about her encounter with a sculpture on Capitol Hill that left a lasting impression. Click here to read the other article in this series.
In the summer of 2000 after my freshman year at William and Mary, I excitedly began an internship on Capitol Hill for a Democratic Congressman from Pennsylvania. It was President Bill Clinton’s last year in office, months before the painful Bush/Gore election. Hillary Clinton was running for the open U.S. Senate seat in New York, and rumors were swirling about her future political ambitions beyond Capitol Hill. Terrorism and 9/11 were not yet part of our daily vernacular, and we lowly interns could wander just about anywhere around the Capitol grounds with a flash of the badge.
Summer is the peak of the tourist season in DC, and constituents from the home district would roll into town eager for a private VIP tour of the Capitol building. Luckily, this task fell into the intern column. It was my favorite part of the job.
In preparation for our roll as tour guide, we had to learn about all of the art in the Capitol. My very favorite piece was, and still is, “The Portrait Monument.” Not only do I love that the sculpted tribute to three of our most important women suffragists is (now) proudly displayed in the Rotunda, I adore that when carved in 1920, the artist had the foresight to realize that her “monument” to women’s rights was not complete.
Sculpted out of Carrara marble by Adelaide Johnson, this monument features three busts of the seminal leaders of the woman’s suffrage movement: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott. The National Women’s Party presented the monument to the U.S. Capitol in February 1921, but it wasn’t without much controversy.
Then President of the National Women’s Party (NWP), Alice Paul, had to order the sculpture to be dragged down the street by mules from the NWP headquarters to the Capitol. Eventually, Congress begrudgingly accepted the gift. Before the unveiling, Congress ordered the original inscription on the sculpture to be whitewashed, removing lines such as “Men, their rights and nothing more. Women, their rights and nothing less.” After one day in the Rotunda, the sculpture was moved to the basement where it stayed for 76 years. In 1996, after a campaign to raise $75,000 to bring the statue to the Rotunda, the sculpture was finally brought up from the basement for public view.
It’s impossible not to notice that behind the carefully sculpted busts of the three women is a lump of unfinished marble; and this is where rumors begin to swirl about the monument’s intended message.
Some say that to Johnson, the unfinished monument referred to the unfinished work in the quest for women’s rights. Others say that the ambiguous shape represents all of the unknown women who have fought, and will fight, for women’s equality. Johnson saw herself as a “feminist, not merely a suffragist,” and that having the right to vote was an important step along the road, but certainly not the final destination. She knew there was still a tremendous amount of work ahead.
Urban legend has it that Johnson intended for the unfinished chunk of marble to be reserved for the first female president. At least that’s what I was told when I began my Capitol tours. Interestingly, in 2000 when I would share this tidbit with my tour groups (and again when I returned to intern in the summer of 2001), most everyone would chime in and say that they thought Hillary Clinton would be the one to claim the spot. Mind you, Hillary Clinton had yet to be elected to the U.S. Senate.
I haven’t been back to the Capitol building since I gave my last tour in August 2001, but I think about that sculpture often. I wonder if the legend is true, and if so, who will claim the fourth spot and when. Now that we’re at the precipice of the 2016 election season with the rumors rampant of a Hillary run, I can’t help but hope that “The Portrait Monument” will soon be completed with our first Madam President.
— Erica Fortwengler