On the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, the majority of monuments depict White men.
But soon, the late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg could become a permanent fixture.
A bill introduced Tuesday by the Democratic Women’s Caucus — including co-chairs Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fl.), Rep Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) — and by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) in the Senate, would construct a monument of the feminist legal titan in a “place of prominence” at the Capitol. A monument of Ginsburg, who died in September, would be a tribute to her lifelong fight for female equality.
“She was an icon and a trailblazer who dedicated her life to opening doors for women at a time when so many insisted on keeping them shut,” said Klobuchar, who introduced a companion bill in the Senate. “It is only fitting that the members of the Senate and the House of Representatives honor her life and service by establishing a monument in the Capitol.”
It’s not yet clear what form Ginsburg’s monument would take. The justice could be depicted through a statue, a bust or a portrait.
The monuments that appear in the U.S. Capitol have been slow to diversify. Of the 100 statues in the National Statutory Hall Collection — two selected by each state — only nine are women.
When statues and portraits do change, it’s usually a result of public pressure, said Erika Doss, a professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame, who focuses on public art and monuments. Sometimes even that’s not enough: In Maryland, thousands of people have petitioned for decades to replace one of their statues of White men with Harriet Tubman.
“New generations are saying, ‘Where are the women? Where are the people of color?’ ” Doss said. Those voices are often countered by those on the other side, she said, wary of “revisionist history,” eager to protect symbols of the Confederacy or other aspects of White male dominance.
Part of the problem lies in the public’s perception of heroism. “Sculpture is a medium of tradition based on heroic events,” Ellen Wiley Todd, a professor emeritus of art history at George Mason University, told The Washington Post in 2011. “Who are our heroes? Firefighters, police officers, soldiers — people on the front lines who are conceived of as male. They may not all be men, but it is a masculine conception.”
Every year, between 3 and 5 million people from all over the world visit the Capitol grounds. Children and teenagers flood the Capitol on class trips, gazing up at the people selected as their “state and national symbols,” Doss said. The monuments selected to appear in the Capitol convey an important message, she said.
“These are the people we uphold and revere in our country. If it’s a majority White male crowd, what does that say?”
Ginsburg would be a perfect choice, Doss said. There are only two other women’s rights advocates depicted as statues in the Capitol, activist Frances Willard and Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress. (Others are featured in portraits.)
Even if the bill passes, it will likely be years before Ginsburg’s monument appears at the Capitol. The Rosa Parks statue, erected in 2013, was authorized by Congress eight years earlier, in 2005.
Eight years in the future, little girls will visit the Capitol who never knew of Ginsburg while she was living. For decades to come, Doss said, they’ll be able to look up at the justice and see all they could be.
“That’s essentially what public art does: It models expectations of behavior.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone who could set a better example, she said.