Roger Williams statue yields to one of suffragists Rhode Island's Chafee comes to grips with move from Rotunda


WASHINGTON - In the name of women's suffrage, religious rights champion Roger Williams is being exiled again.

At least his statue is, to make room in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda for a monument to pioneer American feminists that Congress has kept in a basement for three-quarters of a century.

Williams' first exile was in 1636, when the celebrated freethinker was driven out of Puritan-dominated Massachusetts for his notions of religious freedom and separation of church and state.

He founded what became Rhode Island, and a handsome statue of him by 19th-century sculptor Franklin Simmons has long stood in the Rotunda with other major figures of U.S. history.

Now, as Rhode Island Republican Sen. John Chafee has conceded, the Williams statue will have to go so that the statue commemorating women's suffrage can be reinstalled after an absence of 76 years.

"I don't disagree with having women in the Rotunda, where there aren't any," Chafee said. "I just feel badly that it's Roger Williams who has to go."

When the women's statue returns, Williams is to be moved to the area outside the office of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican.

Often called "Three Ladies in a Bathtub" - and never a contender in aesthetic competitions - the suffrage statue is a massive marble rectangle topped with the busts of early feminists Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Their crusading efforts resulted in women winning the universal right to vote in America in 1920.

Commissioned to commemorate them and the event, the statue was placed in the Rotunda in 1921. But a few weeks later the all-male Congress had it removed. It was later hauled down to a shadowy, lower-level Capitol chamber called "the Crypt," where it has remained for decades.

For years, the Virginia-based Women's Suffrage Statue Campaign lobbied for its return, hoping to have the outsized sculpture reinstalled in the Rotunda in 1995 to mark the 75th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote.

But contract delays and strong opposition by conservative members of the House blocked "the raising," as it was called, until a compromise was finally reached this winter.

Now, the suffragists are to be placed in the Rotunda on a trial basis for one year, after which Congress may decide to let them remain or move them to another "place of honor."

Reinstallation ceremonies have been scheduled for May 8, right before Mother's Day.

"It's the logical thing to have the foremothers of our country go up with the forefathers," said women's statue committee co-chair Joan Meacham.

That much has been easily settled, but not the game of musical pedestals in the Rotunda that the compromise agreement set in motion.

In addition to the Williams statue, the display space in that chamber is taken up by statues of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and James Garfield, plus busts of Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and a Plexiglas copy of England's Magna Carta.

One of these had to go if the suffragists were to be accommodated.

No one dared suggest that two sculptures of Washington were too many. Proposals that Lafayette be removed because he wasn't American were met with the argument that his bust is needed to balance the one of Washington on the opposite side of a doorway.

Though Garfield is not considered one of the nation's immortals, he was the second president to be assassinated, served bravely as a general in the Civil War, was a former congressman and was a brilliant intellectual who could write simultaneously in Greek and Latin using both hands.

A consensus began to form around exiling the Magna Carta replica to Lott's office or its equivalent, on the grounds that it was English, only a copy and made of plastic. But Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican and chairman of the Senate Rules Committee with jurisdiction over all this, was adamant that it should stay.

As he wrote to Chafee in a gentlemanly but passionate exchange, "I have a very strong view that the replica of the Magna Carta should remain for our visitors to see and gain some understanding of its relevance to the origins of our basic laws."

In a response, Chafee restated his "deep regret" over the ouster of Williams, adding that, on the day the Williams statue is lifted off its pedestal, he will introduce a resolution requiring that the statue be put back in its old place the minute the suffrage statue's year is over.

"I look forward," Chafee wrote, "to continuing to work with you to ensure that the Capitol Rotunda contains works of art that reflect our national consciousness."

Pub Date: 4/10/97

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