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  • Woman's Temple, Women's Fountains:The Erasure of Public Memory
  • Carol Mattingly (bio)

In 1996 a statue of three women who had worked for woman's suffrage, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was moved from the first-floor crypt of the nation's capitol into the second-floor rotunda. Much was made of this acknowledgment of women's work in the stately seat of power; no mention was made of a similar tribute, one floor above, that had occurred nearly one hundred years earlier. Frances Elizabeth Willard, orator and reformer who had led the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) for most of its nineteenth-century history, had become the first woman commemorated in the capitol, and the only woman so honored for more than fifty years.1 By 1905, the year of the statue's installation, the WCTU had become the largest and most influential activist movement of women in the country, extending that power into the twentieth century, taking an active and powerful role in the passage of the eighteenth and nineteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as hundreds of other laws affecting women and children.2 The significance of the Willard memorialization extends beyond the representation in Statuary Hall, however, as Willard's organization made tributes to women one of its primary objectives.

Despite the power and efforts of the WCTU at the turn of the twentieth century, this massive effort to recognize women and their accomplishments has been largely forgotten at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Here, I will examine efforts at the turn of the twentieth century to build monuments and to [End Page 133] establish a significant place in public memory for women. I will use the process of "sifting" employed by Kirk Savage in his examination of Civil War monuments. Savage explored the process by which proposed monuments to African American strength and dignity after the war gradually sifted into memorials representing images to white heroism and of "a black man still mired in the ethos of slavery." For Savage, sifting accounts for why some ideas come to be viable and others failures, why some "monuments that followed...shut old doors and opened new ones."3 I will describe a similar but different process from that of Savage: similar because, like those mentioned by Savage, WCTU women's monuments have been gradually sifted from public collective memory; different because, unlike the proposed but unbuilt monuments Savage discusses, the WCTU monuments were completed and claimed public space. I will also discuss not only the difficulties a group such as the WCTU faces, even if temporarily successful, in attempting to break the traditional hold on the shaping and maintenance of public memory and public space amid the efforts of more powerful forces, especially twentieth-century militarist public discourse, but also such influences as modernist architects and changes in women's roles that diverted attention to efforts different from those of the largely white, middle-class WCTU.

Temperance became the largest political organizing force for women in the nineteenth century because of intemperance's association with abuse of women and children. Women protested the manufacture and sale of alcohol, which they believed contributed to women's and children's hardships, but for many the focus expanded to include broader women's issues, especially unequal treatment under the law. The issue became a focus for women, too, because most Americans viewed intemperance as a man's problem. According to historian W. J. Rorabaugh, two-thirds of all distilled spirits were consumed by 50 percent of adult men—one eighth of the population.4 Because alcoholic men often became abusive and unable to provide for their families, women organized and joined the WCTU to oppose and end such abuse. Hundreds of thousands of WCTU women worked for change in a broad spectrum of areas. In addition to suffrage, they sought property rights for married women, the right to custody of children in divorce, and other reforms to assist impoverished and abused women and children; further, they were instrumental in raising the age of sexual consent in nearly every state.5

WCTU members were not content with reform alone...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2153-6856
Print ISSN
0026-3079
Pages
pp. 133-156
Launched on MUSE
2010-09-17
Open Access
No
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