If someone could take a knife and introduce verve and curve into that half-finished rock out in South Dakota, what gracious faces would emerge? In honor of Women's History Month, here's a fun question: Who would you like to see on a women’s Mount Rushmore?
Traipsing through the annals of history, one pays homage to women in predominantly royal roles: goddesses framed in gold, queens and their progeny, saints surrendered and serene. Less true in the United States, where a mythology around the untouchable female never took off in a context where monarchy was overthrown and Catholicism marginalized. The country’s founders seemed to want something different, yet in their zeal around equality those Philadelphia men seemed to forget one thing: Women were not welcome in this great meritocratic experiment, nor the Native population, nor slaves.
Times have changed since then, but those heady beginnings can’t help but affect the pool of candidates we have available when considering what women in our history we should honor as influential figures in American life. We have no presidential counterparts to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy, and what women have captured the vote in lesser offices are few and relatively recent, their longstanding impact not yet clear. There is a need to go wide, including politics but also breaking out of it, to better consider influence and its oft-organic nature.
So here are my votes, in chronological order and calling for a sculptor: Harriet Beecher Stowe. Susan B. Anthony. Eleanor Roosevelt. Mom.
When we look at the major forces of American history, social change is the crowning glory. Women commanding the ears of husbands in official power have no doubt shaped legislative levers, but in considering those who swept the tides of culture independent from any position a spouse could confer, these four take gold: Stowe, for her sea-shifting novel depicting life for African Americans under slavery; Anthony, for her catalytic role in the women’s suffrage movement; Roosevelt, “First Lady of the World” in her human rights achievements; and Mom, the ubiquitous person at the heart of citizen formation.
Harriet Beecher Stowe
“So you’re the little lady who started this great war,” President Abraham Lincoln allegedly said to Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862. Uncle Tom’s Cabin had swept the nation a decade prior, fueling imaginations with its evocative portrayal of the slave’s life, personified in Uncle Tom and the characters around him. Hundreds of thousands bought the book, making it the top-selling novel of the 19th century and fueling ire up and down the country. Abolitionists were mobilized. The South erupted.
Susan B. Anthony
Susan Brownwell Anthony was a rough contemporary of Stowe’s and overlapped in anti-slavery sympathies, but she’s credited for stoking the initial flames of our nation's feminism, a fire that wasn’t to wane until the movement came to full maturity nearly a century later. Anthony—along with honorable mention Elizabeth Cady Stanton—campaigned tirelessly for equal rights, eventually yielding the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. She is the first actual woman to have captured the attention of the U.S. Treasury, who minted her face on the 1979 dollar coin.
Eleanor Roosevelt was another force altogether. The longest-serving First Lady of the United States and one who shaped the role for decades to come, she was a controversial figure with outspoken views on race and the rights of women, unemployed minors, and war refugees. She persuaded her husband Franklin to stay in politics despite his polio paralysis, but often gave speeches in his place. After he died, she was instrumental in persuading the United States to join the United Nations, herself becoming the first chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights, which drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There's no surprise she is consistently listed among the top most admired people of the twentieth century.
"He that conquereth his own soul is greater than he who taketh a city,” Dwight Eisenhower recalled his mother telling him when he was ten. At the end of his life he credits this as the most life-changing advice he ever received. Ike is not alone. There is something to mothers, regardless of era, that holds a powerful rein on the development of the nation’s psyche, values, civic life, you name it. “For Mom and apple pie” is the classically American catch-all for all things sweet, safe, homegrown, and pure—from the days of colonial roughing to the pioneer woman to working moms of the present day. In her service is her strength, and, while relations between kids and their parents continue to evolve, Mom remains in protected benevolence, the figure cultivating each soul, each generation.
So we have four powerful women of American history ready for their close up. Who’s ready to pitch?