Bathtub Ladies sing this song: Doo-dah

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- So now we know. The answer to Freud's famous question -- "What does a woman want?" -- is: An NTC unattractive statue in the Capitol Rotunda.

Of course, not all American women have been heard from. There probably are some in, say, Boise, and maybe others in Muncie, who are unaware that the dignity of their sex is implicated in the controversy about what to do with the cumbersome sculpture of three suffragettes. But this city always echoes with the voices of individuals purporting to speak for people they have not actually consulted.


The sculpture at issue is often called "The Ladies in the Bathtub." This is agreeable but perhaps illegal irreverence: Such talk could contribute to a "hostile environment," hence it could constitute sexual harassment. Anyway, the ladies emerging, as it were, from a 13-ton block of marble are Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott.

Let's stipulate that each was a great American. Unfortunately, the supply of greatness is, it seems, infinite, and the supply of choice Washington spots for homage to greatness is not.


The supply of alleged greatness long ago exceeded the supply of space for statues in the Rotunda. For 32 years the marble ladies have languished in the Capitol basement, seen only by scurrying congressional staffers and tourists exceptionally diligent in their touring. But society, say those claiming to speak for it, has had its consciousness raised and has decided that the statue kept in the basement is, like the mad woman kept in the attic in "Jane Eyre," symbolic of Put-Upon Woman.

So plans were made to move it to the Rotunda in time for the 1995 commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which enfranchised women. However, Congress was so busy not balancing the budget that relocation of the statue was not authorized until the 104th Congress. That's right, during the Gingrich Terror. In the spirit of that Congress, private money -- $75,000 of it -- was raised to pay for moving the rock, which is about the size of Rhode Island.

That state was founded by Roger Williams (1603-1683), a statue in his own right honoring the turbulent divine banished from Massachusetts in 1635 because his theological and political views were a stench in Puritans' nostrils. (He said civil authorities had no right to enforce religious principles and, even more provocatively, he said Native Americans had rights, including the right to be paid for land taken from them.) In 1872 the statue of Williams was placed in the Capitol's Statuary Hall. It was moved to the Rotunda in 1979.

Immoderately unamused

Guess what statue is supposed to be removed from the Rotunda to make room for the ladies. Rhode Island's Sen. John Chafee, a model of the "moderate" Republicanism so beloved by journalists who don't like Republicans, is immoderately unamused.

The Rotunda contains a reproduction of the Magna Carta, busts of Washington, Lafayette and Martin Luther King, and statues of Williams, Washington, Garfield, Lincoln, Grant, Hamilton, Jefferson and Jackson. So, which should go so that we can improve the representation of X chromosomes in the Rotunda?

James A. Garfield is the least distinguished person represented there, but he was assassinated, so picking on him would be adding insult to the ultimate injury. Andrew Jackson was an unpleasant fellow, as nasty to Native Americans as Williams was nice, but he is one of the Democratic Party's saints. Senator Chafee suggests moving the Magna Carta, which isn't even American, but that might displease a woman (Queen Elizabeth II, whose Bicentennial gift it was in 1976).

Anyway, any such solution will leave the Rotunda, one of the nation's great public spaces, diminished by the addition of an unattractive sculpture. And it will be a monument less to past heroines than to present fixations, such as identity politics: You are your group -- your race or gender or sexual orientation or whatever. Or the entitlement mentality: Every group is entitled to recognition -- a kind of government seal of approval -- and it is women's turn beneath the Capitol dome.


The problem is not confined to the Capitol. The clean geometric beauty of the Mall is threatened by monumentitis. Advocates of various causes, from large events (the Second World War) to small factions (veterans of various ethnicities) seek recognition in stone. The background music of contemporary politics is the whine of axes being ground by groups claiming to be victims by virtue of having been ignored.

As government becomes evermore minutely attentive, everything in Washington, from causes to motives, seems to be becoming smaller. Everything, that is, except the grievances of groups that feel neglected.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 2/24/97