Today, ninety years after women won the right to vote, the symbolic representation of women by our government in the U.S. Capitol Building is abysmal. From the frieze and paintings in the Capitol Rotunda that depict our nation’s history to the statues in National Statuary Hall (NSH), women are noticeably absent. An outsider with no foreknowledge of our country or our culture would think that the United States was ninety percent male.
The Capitol Rotunda consists of a frieze that depicts our nation’s history in nineteen scenes including: Landing of Columbus, Burial of DeSoto, William Penn and the Indians, Battle of Lexington, Declaration of Independence, and Peace at the End of the Civil War. From the titles of the scenes you know the images will be male dominated. Actually they contain identifiable images of at least two dozen famous American men beginning with Christopher Columbus and ending with the Wright brothers, but in the entire surround there is only a single identifiable woman, Pocahontas, in the frieze, John Smith and Pocahontas. Below the frieze, eight paintings, each twelve feet by eighteen feet, adorn the Rotunda. Four of the paintings: Declaration of Independence, Landing of Columbus, Surrender of General Burgoyne, and Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, do not show an image of a single woman. The four other paintings contain a handful of women in the background and only one identifiable woman, Pocahontas on her knees before man and God in the painting The Baptism of Pocahontas.
National Statuary Hall, located between the Rotunda and the House of Representatives, was created in 1864 out of the old House of Representatives Chamber. It is a majestic place of honor for two Americans from each of the fifty states. In NSH there are presidents, senators, governors, religious leaders, soldiers, writers, inventors, artists, educators, and even an astronaut, but less than ten percent are women. Only nine statues of women currently grace NSH: Helen Keller (Alabama), Frances E. Willard (Illinois), Maria L. Sanford (Minnesota), Jeanette Rankin (Montana), Sakakawea (North Dakota) Sarah Winnemucca (Nevada), Florence Sabin (Colorado), Esther Hobart Morris (Wyoming), and Mother Joseph (Washington).
Why are women who comprise over half of the population so under-represented in our nation’s Capitol? The fact that the Capitol was designed and built before women had the right to vote or participate in the political process is a partial explanation for the dearth of women. But the statues in NSH can be changed so you would expect new installations to reflect gender parity. Three new statues have been approved by their respective states and will soon be installed in National Statuary Hall: President Gerald Ford (Michigan), Senator Barry Goldwater (Arizona) and Harry Truman (Missouri), all are men. Surely the fact that there has never been a female president or vice-president limits the number of female candidates, but NSH is far from the “Hall of the Presidents.” In fact, currently only four former presidents make up the National Statuary Hall Collection: George Washington, James Garfield, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan.
What’s especially disturbing is there actually are women in most states that are more noteworthy and garner more name recognition than the men standing in their stead. John James Ingalls proudly stands in NSH representing Kansas, but Amelia Earhart is absent. John Hanson and Charles Carroll represent Maryland, but Marylanders Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring and founder of the modern environmental movement, and Harriet Tubman, humanitarian and abolitionist, are conspicuously absent. New Mexico showcases a statue of Senator Dennis Chavez but could proudly display artist, Georgia O'Keefe. Florida journalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas and author of Rivers of Grass, who is rightfully credited with preserving the Florida Everglades has a statue at Fairchild Gardens but is absent from NSH. Instead John Gorrie who was actually born on the Island of Nevis represents Florida in NSH.
For the young girl touring the Capitol, the message from our government is clear, you are invisible, you don’t matter. For our nation to move forward the achievements of women need to be recognized and women need to be given full symbolic equality. As a psychologist I know that 80% of communication is non-verbal, and that the lack of visual images of women leaders has a significant negative impact on girls and women. You might tell your daughter, you can be anything, but the interior of our nation’s Capital tells a different story. The visual over-rides the verbal. She doesn’t hear, yes you can, but no you can’t. Put another way, would you want to take your son on a tour of the Capitol if our nation’s forefathers were actually foremothers and if National Statuary Hall contained ninety-one statues of women and only nine of men?
Most things children learn are not learned in school. Children learn both intellectual and emotional lessons from their parents, their environment, and the symbols and icons that surround them. It is a little known fact that self-esteem is a greater predictor of success than IQ. Unfortunately our country’s culture and icons do not foster the self-esteem of both genders equally. Helping girls feel good about themselves is not only our moral duty, but important to our success as a nation. Only when women are fully included in our nation’s history can they fully contribute to our nation’s future.
So before you take your daughter on a tour of the Capitol, think twice. There should be a sign outside that says, “Caution: If you have a daughter under 18, a tour of the Capitol may be dangerous to your daughter’s psychological health. The overwhelming predominance of male imagery, paintings, and statues and virtual non-existence of female images may diminish your daughter’s self-esteem. Conversely, if you have a son, a Capitol tour might create a false sense of entitlement. Please proceed with caution into these hallowed halls representing our nation.”