House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s plans to remove Confederate statues from the Capitol have generated a noisy fight with some Republicans. Flying under the radar is her low-key strategy to replace Civil War-era generals with those of historically important women, including trail-blazing members of Congress.
The House will vote Wednesday on Democrats’ legislation (H.R. 7573) to remove from view statues of Confederate figures and replace the bust of Roger Taney, author of a key Supreme Court decision backing slavery, with one of another former justice, Thurgood Marshall. Democrats at the same time are pushing ahead with a must-pass spending plan (H.R. 7611) backs removing such statues and prioritizes replacing them with art honoring women.
Those plans have quietly been in development for months in conjunction with the centennial of the adoption of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Pelosi, who has said little about the strategy, said at a press conference this month she doesn’t “care that much” about statues but that young people need a forward-looking vision when they visit the Capitol.
“So let’s just think about what are the values, the vision, the perspective that we enshrine and how that benefits our children rather than having a big fight,” the speaker said.
That vision was outlined when the House Appropriations Committee met this month to approve the annual spending bill for the Legislative Branch. It calls for the Architect of the Capitol to remove the statues and busts of Confederate figures and four white supremacists, including Taney. The report accompanying the measure also details how the architect’s office, the House curator, and others were directed to increase images of women in public spaces throughout the Capitol complex.
Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues, said that along with the centennial of women’s voting rights, the plans recognize the fact that there now are record numbers of women in Congress. The 127 women holding seats in Congress represent almost a quarter of the 535 members in the House and Senate.
“Our halls of Congress and our memorials and statues should reflect the diversity of this country and the diversity of the women who have served,” Lawrence said before the committee approved the legislation.
Women Statues Wanted
House officials are developing the plans even though it will be months before the Legislative Branch bill becomes law. It isn’t among the spending measures House leaders are expected to pass before the August recess and probably won’t advance until a post-election, lame duck session.
The focus of much of the current debate is on the 100 figures in the National Statuary Hall Collection. Although the original plan called for the two statues donated by each state to only feature images of men, the 1864 law creating the collection didn’t carry that limitation. The number of women statues now totals only nine and includes Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to the House, and Sacagawea, a Native American member of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
There also are statues and busts of women that have been commissioned separately by Congress, such as one of civil rights leader Rosa Parks and another of suffragist Sojourner Truth. They are among the Capitol’s most recent acquisitions.
Still, the total number of such statues remains far less than those representing men and doesn’t reflect the growing ranks of women, Michele Cohen, the curator in the Architect’s office, said at a recent webinar organized by the U.S. Capitol Historical Association to help launch Shaping History: Women in Capitol Art, a new 10-part podcast.
“They’re much more visible both in the political arena, in the cultural arena, and therefore it’s going to be a much more typical thing to commission a statue honoring a woman today because of the role women play in society versus in the 19th Century when they really were marginalized,” Cohen said.
Lawrence said the plans backed by the Appropriations panel call for the House curator to first create a list of 10 notable female historical figures who are not already displayed as a Capitol statue and who have made significant contributions to society. In addition, Lawrence said they want the office to identify 10 former or current female members of Congress who have set trailblazing records.
“These lists should provide a blueprint for the incorporation of more female images in congressional public spaces,” the Legislative Branch report states.
A twin goal outlined by Democrats calls for the Capitol to also ensure that more of the art is produced by female artists. Cohen said four of the nine statues of women in Statuary Hall are by women artists and that there also are 27 other sculptures, busts, and monuments by women on display throughout the Capitol.
But Cohen and others said the public shouldn’t expect to see big changes when the Capitol finally reopens to tours. Cohen said creating public art is expensive and time-consuming.
“If a statue is commissioned and it appears within two years that would be a really fast timetable,” Cohen said. “Sometimes things have taken as much as 10 years because funding stalled.”
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