–by Lauren Borchard
In 2005, New Mexico completed the Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection when Po’Pay arrived in the Rotunda. The collection originated in 1864 when Senator Justin Morrill (R-VT) proposed using the newly vacated old House chamber to display statuary donated to the Capitol by the states. Each state would have the opportunity to send two statues to the collection; Rhode Island was the first to do so, sending Nathanael Greene in 1870. In the intervening 135 years, state legislators sent just eight women to populate the halls of the national government.
In 1899 Illinois’ legislature approved a bill appropriating $9000 to cover the costs of creating and transporting a bronze or marble likeness of Frances E. Willard, an educator and reformer especially interested in temperance and women’s suffrage, to the Capitol in Washington. The bill deemed Willard “the uncrowned queen of purity and temperance” and commended her dedication “to the spiritual welfare of mankind,” noting that “the world at large has been materially benefited by her prayers and sacrifices.”
After Willard’s installation in 1905, state legislatures did not nominate any additional women until the 1950s, when Maria L. Sanford (Minnesota, 1958), Florence R. Sabin (Colorado, 1959), and Ester Hobart Morris (Wyoming, 1960) all began their journeys to Washington. Sanford taught at the University of Minnesota for nearly 30 years and supported equal access to education for blacks and adults, women’s rights, and Minnesota’s conservation efforts. Sabin was also known primarily as an educator; she was the first woman to graduate from the Johns Hopkins Medical School and the first woman to become a full professor at a medical college when she became professor of histology in 1917. Her later years were devoted to research and to chairing Colorado governor John Vivian’s subcommittee on health—work which led to a series of laws which modernized the state’s public health system. Morris was recognized as a suffrage pioneer who promoted Wyoming’s 1869 suffrage law, making it the first state in the nation to grant universal suffrage. She was also the first woman to hold a judicial office in the United States when she was appointed justice of the peace in 1870.
The 1980s saw both Mother Joseph (Washington, 1980) and Jeanette Rankin (Montana, 1985) join the collection, which was nearing completion. As if trying to make up for previous omissions, four of the last eight regular submissions to the collection were women. Additionally, four were Native Americans, including the last two women to enter the collection, Sakakawea (North Dakota, 2003) and Sarah Winnemucca (Nevada, 2005). As time passed, more and more statues were paid for through private contributions rather than state appropriations, including those of Sabin, Morris, Mother Joseph, Sakakawea, and Winnemucca (some of the funds for Rankin’s statue were also raised privately).
Washington recognized Mother Joseph, a Canadian-born Catholic nun, for her humanitarian work building schools, hospitals, and orphanages. Rankin, a women’s rights and peace activist, was the first woman elected to the House of Representatives (1916). She was elected a second time in 1940. In each term, she was one of the few to vote against entry into a world war and is the only person to vote against entry into both wars. Sakakawea, perhaps better known as Sacagawea, is most famous for guiding and interpreting for Lewis and Clark’s expedition through the newly-acquired Mississippi territory from 1804-06. Winnemucca was an educator and an advocate for her Paiute tribe; she was the first Indian woman to publish a book—her autobiography—in English.
These eight figures were sprinkled amongst the 92 other statues that make up the National Statuary Hall Collection, ringing the old House chamber (now known as National Statuary Hall) and lining the hallways that stretch away from the central location. The opening of the Capitol Visitor Center (CVC) in December 2008 brought several changes, however, as a number of pieces in the National Statuary Hall Collection moved into the new space, including Mother Joseph, Jeannette Rankin, Sakakawea, Maria L. Sanford, and Sarah Winnemucca.
Women’s presence in the collection has continued to grow, thanks to Congress’ 2000 passage of a law allowing states to replace a statue in the collection with a new piece. Kansas was the first state to take advantage of the change, replacing George Washington Glick, a key figure in state politics, with Dwight D. Eisenhower in 2003. In 2009, Helen Keller’s likeness arrived at the CVC to replace Alabama’s Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry. Keller was a deaf-blind activist best known for her work on behalf of the blind and other disabled people, but her statue depicts her at age seven, in the moment she learns the word “water.” Congress has also passed legislation directing that a statue of Rosa Parks be placed in National Statuary Hall.
There are movements afoot to replace other statues with figures more familiar to today’s public, and the recent history of the National Statuary Hall Collection suggests that a number of states could choose to honor women and minorities. At the very least, some of the more hidden pieces have gained new prominence with the move into the CVC.