Prior to the movement to include more women among those proud representatives of their individual states among the bronze and marble statues in the National Statuary Hall, only nine women were so honored. Soon, two outstanding women from the Great Plains will join those nine earlier women to be installed--Nebraska's Willa Cather, the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize and Kansas's Amelia Earhart, the pioneering female pilot.
The women there before them are a group to be admired, some whose names remain familiar and others whose achievements have begun to fade from American memories. All of them deserve mention.
Frances E. Willard (1839-1898) was a pioneer in the temperance movement and one of the organizers of the Prohibition Party in 1882. She served as President of the Women's Christian Temperance Union and was President of Evanston College for Women from 1871 to 1874. She represents Illinois and was the first woman to be chosen for Statuary Hall. Less well known but perhaps more significant is Esther Hobart Morris (1814-1902) honored by Wyoming. Orphaned at 11, she supported herself as a seamstress and businesswoman, involving herself in the anti-slavery movement and women's right to vote. Her influence led to Wyoming giving that right to women in 1869, along with control of their own property and equal pay for women teachers. Elected Justice of the Peace in 1870, she became the first woman to hold judicial office in America.
Representing Minnesota is educator Maria Sanford (1836-1920), called at the time of her death "the best loved woman of the North Star State." She championed women's rights, education of blacks, adult education, and was a founder of parent-teacher organizations. In addition to education, she also led the conservation and beautification program of Minnesota.
Another educator, Jeannette Rankin (1889-1973), honored by Montana, was a social worker and advocate for women's suffrage, as well as a rancher, lecturer, and lobbyist for peace and women's rights. Probably she is best known for her political positions, as the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1916 and in 1940. She supported the cause of Peace throughout her life and voted against America's entry in World Wars I and II. She was the only member of Congress to oppose the Declaration of War on Japan.
Colorado's choice was Florence Sabin (1871-1953), a pioneer in science and public health. She graduated from Smith College and received her medical training at Johns Hopkins Medical School, the first woman to graduate from there. Her medical career included many achievements, and for the state that honored her she came out of retirement at the request of the Colorado governor to chair the subcommittee on health that modernized the state's public health system with the "Sabin Health Laws."
Two Native American women have been honored by their states. Sarah Winnemucca (1844-1891) of Nevada and the Paiute tribe, used her skills in languages to assist both the government and Native American people. She gave speeches, published the first book by a Native American woman, and started a school in which children were taught in both their native language and English. The second Native American, Sakakawea (ca. 1788-1812) from North Dakota, served as interpreter for Lewis & Clark. North Dakota honored her as "traveler and guide, a translator, a diplomat, and a wife and mother."
Washington chose Mother Joseph (1823-1902), who entered the Sisters of Charity at the age of 22. In 1856 she lead five missionaries to the Pacific Northwest where she employed her skills as an architect and artist in the construction of eleven hospitals, five Indian schools, seven academies, and two orphanages, supervising the construction and raising the funds.
Finally, perhaps the best known woman among those in the National Statuary Hall is Helen Keller (1880-1968) honored by Alabama. Her statue depicts Helen as a young girl at the water pump when she first understands the connection between her teacher Annie Sullivan's signing in her hand and language. Although deaf, blind, and unable to speak, she communicated by touch, Braille, and a special typewriter to become a writer and supporter of social causes.
Of particular notice to me as I studied the women honored in Statuary Hall is the common element of service to others. It was not their personal achievements alone that caused their states to select them but rather their great service to others. In the push to achieve Equal Visibility Everywhere (EVE), I hope the continuing honors in nominating women will focus on their service to others, as well as their popular fame and personal achievements.
Another observation is that most of the states that have honored women have been from the Western half of America! Several were born and educated elsewhere, but their service was welcomed and honored by states in the West. Perhaps the fact that as settlers immigrated westward, women were often partners with husbands and brothers in farming and business. Women played an active role in the Populist Movement, particularly farm women, while urban women and women in the East were more involved in Suffrage and Women's Rights. Perhaps, laboring side-by-side on the farm or in other endeavors gained quicker recognition and respect than parades and speeches!
Willa Cather championed women of many types in her writing--Antonia Shirmerda in My Antonia, Alexandra Bergson in O Pioneers, Thea Kronberg in Song of the Lark--, inspiring readers with fictional heroes as well as inspiring women with her own achievements as an author. Amelia Earhart showed women not only that they could fly planes but also that just because men had dominated many professions women were not incapable of mastering those professions as well.
Other states are now considering whether to replace earlier statues with individuals from more recent times. Two governors have already signed legislation to replace male figures with females, with plans to move the statues of these largely forgotten men to a respectful location elsewhere. In some cases of removal, the men are being replaced because they were chosen for values no longer respected.
The selection of replacements should not be based exclusively on gender, but it does seem appropriate that states give more attention to the ladies than some have in the past!