Karen Stacer, wife of a U.S. senator's aide, was headed for the restroom in the basement of the U.S. Capitol several weeks ago when she stumbled across three tons of marble. It was a statue of three women, their names facing the wall as if in shame.
When she looked closer, she discovered they were three of the most famous women in American history: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, suffragists who had helped women win the right to vote.Upstairs in the Capitol rotunda, a place of honor, are monuments to America's great men - Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Spiro Agnew. But the women who had secured the most basic of democratic rights for half the American population are consigned to the bowels of the building, once used as storage.
In the 74 years since the statue was presented to Congress in an elaborate but apparently hypocritical ceremony, the marble women have languished in the basement despite five resolutions to move them upstairs next to the boys. No other women stand in the rotunda, giving visitors the impression that women have done little for this country besides sew flags and marry presidents.
Moving the statue requires a vote in both the Senate and the House. Led by Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, whose grandmother was an activist for women's rights, the Senate recently passed yet another resolution. The House seemed on the verge of agreement. Finally, America's pioneering sisters would take their rightful place beside their revolutionary brothers.
But this week they ran into something more immovable, it seems, than three tons of marble. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
Gingrich is a man who presumably wants to be president. Does he want to be president of just 49 percent of the American population? Would he be president of the United States of Men?
"Why the speaker is doing this I have no idea," says Joan Meacham, president of the 75th Anniversary of Woman Suffrage Task Force in Washington, D.C.
Countless appeals have fallen on deaf ears, Meacham says. Gingrich, who could bring up the resolution for a vote in the House, reportedly commented that he didn't want to be associated with "a bunch of liberal women."
Liberal women? Meacham, a Republican, names some of the groups involved in the effort: The League of Women Voters, Concerned Women for America - an extremely conservative group, and Republican women's organizations. Radicals!
The mood is grim at Meacham's office, operating under the auspices of the National Women's Party, whose founder commissioned the statue in 1920 after the constitutional amendment was passed giving women the right to vote.
"We're totally deflated," Meacham says. "I'm totally shocked . . . There's no reason this could not have been done."
Arrangements had been made for the statue's relocation, including constructing a new base for the heavy monument. A rededication ceremony had been scheduled, which now will be held in the basement, on the way to the ladies room.
Congress was to recess Friday. Without the House resolution, the opportunity will be lost to move the statue in time for 75th anniversary suffrage festivities Aug. 24-27.
But much more will be lost. The lack of memorials to women makes for a hollow atmosphere at the rotunda. For all its statuary, it is half-empty in its biased representation. Adding three heroines would not subtract from the heroes already standing there.
Meacham is optimistic that the statue eventually will be - shall we say - disemboweled. But it looks doubtful that it will happen in time for this month's anniversary, a slap in the face of American women and an indication of the status of women within Republican House leadership.
Gingrich's office responded with a long-distance shrug. "We have no update," the press officer said. "In the long run, I don't know where he's going to come down" on the issue.
But, the aide added reassuringly, "He's in favor of suffrage." Let us now fall to our knees and give thanks that House Speaker Gingrich does not plan to take back our right to vote.