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It was supposed to be in the Capitol's Rotunda. But no one, including a committee of GOP women, can agree on what to do with a statue of three suffragists. So much for sisterhood. : Ladies Who Languish in a Basement

May 27, 1996|GREGG ZOROYA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — At last, Ladies-in-the-Bathtub seemed headed for higher ground.

A 1921 sculpture of three suffragists, torsos rising stoically out of a block of Italian marble, would languish no longer in the basement of the U.S. Capitol but be moved to the main floor as a celebration of women.

A resolution to hoist the carved features of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and a bonneted Lucretia Mott breezed through the Senate last summer to mark the 75th anniversary of women's right to vote.

Then it reached the House floor, where two GOP women rose to object that taxpayer funds could be better spent.

"I hear it is only a few hundred thousand dollars," U.S. Rep. Linda Smith, of Washington state, argued from the floor. "But a few thousands and a few millions and a few billions and this nation is in deep, deep trouble."

As the year of the suffrage anniversary came and went, groups such as the National Federation of Republican Women and the League of Women Voters grew impatient demanding action. House Speaker Newt Gingrich's answer was to let women decide--a core group of 17 House GOP women.

"Somehow this was sort of dumped in our laps and we were asked to agree [with the Senate vote]," says Connecticut Rep. Nancy L. Johnson. "We just don't agree with it, that's all."

So much for sisterhood.

Objections to moving the Ladies were myriad. But there was an answer for every concern.

Should a cash-strapped federal government spend money frivolously? The Architect of the Capitol had $400,000 set aside for just such projects.

A poor use of taxpayer money at any cost? The Capitol Preservation Commission, another funding source, has $28 million in privately raised cash.

Too expensive a project regardless? Contractors would donate labor to keep costs well under an estimated $75,000.

Too heavy at 13 tons for the Rotunda? A lightweight steel base would help the statue meet standards.

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Still, the GOP congresswomen showed little resolve to act.

"Every member is terribly busy," Johnson says. "Whenever the subject would come up, the crowd would disperse."

The inertia left Sen. John W. Warner (R.-Va.) fuming. He sponsored the Senate resolution that passed overwhelmingly last year. "I'm somewhat disappointed that the outside world has to look at a Congress that cannot seem to get its thoughts together on this," Warner says. "I mean, it's a very straightforward issue."

House Democrats, including Jane Harman of Rolling Hills, just shake their heads. "I find that it's an apt metaphor for gridlock and, sadly, the erosion of women's rights," she says. "I say, let's get on with [moving the statue] and stop fussing."

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To help light a fire under the GOP House women, the Woman Suffrage Statue Campaign was formed in February, drawing support from an expanding circle of women and political organizations like the Business and Professional Women, the American Assn. of University Women and both national political parties. In March, the campaign began a fund drive to jump-start movement on the statue, raising $17,000 from individual contributions; it's planning a major reception this summer.

When the Democratic National Committee put a plea on its World Wide Web site for moving the statue, the Republican National Committee, already worried about a growing gender gap nationwide, followed suit with its own Web page.

But nothing has budged the core group of GOP House women.

"Where are we now? I'm really not sure," sighs Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.), who has pushed her colleagues hard to salvage the suffragists. "I don't think too many of the women are that interested in it. They just don't like that statue."

And therein lies the rub.

Kibitzing over feasibility and cost aside, Johnson and others simply don't like the look of the Ladies.

"It's very heavy. It's very square. It takes up a lot of space. And unless you're tall enough," says Johnson, who barely clears 5 feet, "you really don't get the full impact. That statue needs to be near a circular stair."

"I love it. I think it's beautiful," says Karen Staser, co-chairwoman of the Woman Suffrage Statue Campaign. "[The artist] put these women in this solid rock of marble to symbolize women rising up . . . out of oppression."

Suddenly, everybody's an art critic. Johnson is leading an effort for a substitute to be placed in the Rotunda, this one of Esther Hobart Morris, who helped make Wyoming the first state or territory to grant women the right to vote in 1869. The life-size statue of Hobart, caught in mid- and purposeful stride, gown flowing dramatically, now stands in a hallway just outside the Rotunda.

"She is not only female, but she is forceful. She is moving. . . . She is powerful," says Johnson, who has been planning to meet with women's groups to discuss her idea. But she hasn't yet had a chance.

Others say that relying on some individual standard for aesthetic beauty misses the point.

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