Washington DC is well known for its many beautiful monuments and memorials dedicated to the great leaders that helped shape this country. There are architectural wonders designed to honor George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, among others. But what about the women? With a little bit of effort, and a lot of walking, you can find the Washington DC women’s monuments and statues dedicated to a few of the many ladies that helped shape our nation.
American history is filled with many sung and unsung female leaders and heroines. In school I learned about a few of history’s leading high profile US female figures – Betsy Ross making the first flag; Sacagawea ‘s assistance with the Lewis and Clark explorations; Harriet Tubman’s fight against slavery. But with over 400 years of history, women’s contributions to our country have to be so much more.
On my visit to Washington DC this winter, finding the various memorials dedicated to American women became my quest. In the Greek tradition, there are many imposing statues featuring female figures throughout the city, symbolizing great ideals such as justice, learning or peace. But I was looking for those memorials and monuments that honored the living, breathing women who spent their lives making a difference. It took some effort to track them down, and lots of walking, but through the process, I learned about the contribution of some of this nation’s greatest women. A few I already knew about, but many were a new experience. So, in honor of National Women’s History Month (March), I am sharing the list, so that on your next visit to the nation’s capital, you too can search them out.
Around the National Mall Area
Vietnam Women’s Memorial
Location – Across from the Vietnam Veteran’s Wall Memorial, Henry Bacon Drive Northwest
This is my favorite memorial in Washington DC. I find this statue to be so deeply moving. As one nurse supports a wounded soldier in a pieta-like embrace, another nurse looks up into the sky. Is she looking up for help? Is she looking up because she fears an attack? Is she looking up to God? A third nurse kneels down, as if in prayer. This is a truly three dimensional statue that needs to be studied from all perspectives. The facial expressions, the position of the hands, each woman’s body posture, they all tell a moving story. They are fighting to save a life. Do they succeed?
This memorial honors the 265,000 women that were active in the Vietnam War throughout the world, and the nearly 11,000 women that were on the ground in Vietnam. 90% of these young women were nurses in the Army, Navy and Ar Force. And they were young, very young, volunteering right after graduation. I picture my daughter-in-law who is a nurse, at 22, trying to save lives in the midst of the chaos, and the physical and emotional scars that would have created.
Next door, the Vietnam Veteran’s Wall also honors eight women who died in the Vietnam War.
Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial
Location – in the 4th term section of the FDR memorial along the tidal basin
Eleanor Roosevelt’s memorial is part of the greater FDR memorial dedicated to the four term presidency of her husband. But her statue is not in recognition of her contributions as the only First Lady that served for twelve years. Rather, it recognizes her valued work in the fledgling United Nations, promoting universal human rights as the first chairperson of the UN Commission on Human Rights. She played a key role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which outlined the basic human rights that all individuals were entitled to.
Jane A. Delano – Founder of the American Red Cross Nursing Service
Location – American Red Cross Square, between 17th and 18th streets and D and E streets NW.
Jane received her nursing degree in 1886 from the Bellevue Hospital School of Nursing in New York City. Besides being a good nurse, she was also a good administrator and manager. In 1909 she was made Superintendent of the United States Army Nurse Corps. Eventually she was also named president of the American Nurses Association and chair of the National Committee of the Red Cross Nursing Service. Through her leadership, she combined these three organizations to form the American Red Cross Nursing Service. The resulting organization developed response teams for disaster relief and trained thousands of nurses that were then ready for service in World War I.
Across the square from the Jane Delano memorial is a statue “In honor and memory of the men and the women of the red cross who have given their lives in the service of mankind”.
A little lesser known fact is that the Red Cross building itself was built by the U.S Army Corps of Engineers and that the building was conceived as a memorial to the many women who served as volunteer nurses on both sides of the Civil War.
Daughters of the American Revolution Founder’s Statue
Location – Next to Constitution Hall, 18th Street Northwest & C Street Northwest
This statue honors the four founders of the Daughters of the American Revolution: Mary Desha, Mary Smith Lockwood, Ellen Hardin Walworth, and Eugenia Washington. DAR was founded out of the fact that the Sons of the American Revolution organization did not allow women to join. DAR is a non-for-profit, volunteer organization that focuses on historic preservation, promoting patriotism and education. To become a member, you must be able to demonstrate your lineage to someone actively involved in the Revolutionary cause for independence.
The sculpture was created by another DAR member, artist Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who has two other statues in Washington DC, the Titanic Memorial and the Aztec Fountain at the Pan American Union Building
Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument
Location – corner of Constitution Ave. NE and 2nd St. NE
The Belmont-Paul house is now a museum managed by the National Park Service in conjunction with the National Women’s Party. The monument commemorates the women’s suffrage and equal rights movement, and was established by President Barack Obama in 2016. Barely a block from the Capitol Building, this house was the home to the National Woman’s Party for nearly 90 years. The monument is named after suffragists and National Woman’s Party leaders Alva Belmont and Alice Paul. Alice Paul took over the leadership of the suffrage movement after deaths of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and along with Alva Belmont who provided the financial backing, formed the National Women’s Party. The National Women’s Party played a critical role in the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, granting women the right to vote.
For up to date information on visiting the monument please visit https://www.nps.gov/bepa/index.htm
A Little Further Afield
Women in Military Service for America Memorial
Location – located at the western end of Memorial Avenue at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington County, Virginia,
I had never been to Arlington cemetery, so I was not familiar with this building. Dedicated in 1997, it honors and remembers all the women that have served in all branches of military service in the US. It is a museum as well as a memorial, with exhibits showing all aspects of the history of women in service in the US from the 18th century through the present.
The Hall of Honor recognizes those women that were killed in action, died in the line of duty, were prisoners of war or received the nations’ highest awards for service and bravery. The room contains the “sister block” of marble used for the Tomb of the Unknown, along with flags of the states, territories and services.
Location – Arlington National Cemetery, Nurses’ Section, section 21
Initially installed to honor the nurses that served in World War I, the statue was rededicated in 1971 ” To Commemorate Devoted Service to Country and Humanity By Army, Navy, and Air Force.
Spanish American War Nurses Monument
Location – Arlington National Cemetery, Nurses’ Section, section 21
The Society of Spanish-American War Nurses dedicated this monument to the memory of the brave women volunteers who nursed the wounded and sick during the Spanish-American War.
Mary Mcleod Bethune Memorial
Location – Lincoln Park, East Capitol Street Northeast & 12th Street Northeast
Mary Mcleod Bethune is best known for the school that she started in Daytona Beach, Florida to educate African American girls. Eventually, the school became the Bethume-Cookman University. In a Letter to the Editor of the New York Times, Bethune wrote: “I believe that the greatest hope for the development of my race lies in training our women thoroughly and practically”, an approach still used today to help developing third world countries. Improving the condition of African Americans, especially women, became her life’s work.
Born in 1875 to humble beginnings as the daughter of former slaves, she was inspired as a young girl to get an education. To get to and from school. Mary had to walk five miles each way. As the only one of her family to go to school, she passed on what she leaned, teaching her family the lessons from each day. She went on to attend Barber-Scotia College in North Carolina in 1888, the first school of higher education that was established for African American women after the Civil War.
Throughout her life she worked tirelessly to improve the lives of African Americans, especially girls and women. She became good friends with President and Eleanor Roosevelt, serving on FDR’s “Black Cabinet”, advising on issues facing African American during his administrations. She went on to serve as an adviser to five presidents of the US.
The National Park Service also manages Bethune’s last residence at 1318 Vermont Avenue in Washington DC as the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site.
Nuns of the Battlefield
Location – Rhode Island Avenue Northwest & M Street Northwest
You could easily miss this monument if you were not looking for it. It’s on a corner, appropriately across the street from the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. This memorial also honors nurses helping in a war, this time the Civil War. The bronze bas relief is a tribute to the more than 600 nuns coming from a dozen different orders that provided aid and comfort to both sides of the battlefield. The monument was installed in 1924 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Saint Mother Théodore Guérin
Location – on the grounds of the Catholic University of America
I have to be honest, I was not able to personally make it to see this statue as it is about a 20 minute drive from central Washington DC (though I hope to get to it next time I am in the city).
Mother Théodore Guérin is known for founding the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in Indiana in 1840. She also founded many schools throughout Indiana, including Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. She was canonized a saint by the Roman Catholic church in 2006.
Capital Hill Statuary Collection
The National Statuary Hall Collection in the Capitol Building consists of 100 statues, with each state having donated two statues honoring notable persons form their state’s history. The statues are scattered throughout the building: thirty-five statues are currently located in National Statuary Hall, six in the Rotunda, 13 in the Crypt, 13 in the Hall of Columns and 24 in the Capitol Visitor Center. The remaining statues are located in various areas throughout the House and Senate wings of the Capitol. There are also about a dozen additional statues in the collection representing other famous citizens in the history of the US. To see the statues in the Statuary hall, you will need to sign up for a tour at the Capitol Visitor’s Center. The Hall of Columns is currently not part of the public tour. Of this statuary collection, only about 10% represent the contribution made by women.
Portrait Monument to Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Statnton and Susn B. Anthony
Location – National Statuary Hall; part of the Other Statues Collection
This is a group portrait statue dedicated to the pioneers of the women’s suffrage movement, which won women the right to vote in the US in 1920. The monument was presented by the National Woman’s Party to the U.S. Capitol in 1921 as a gift from the women of the United States.
Location – National Statuary Hall; part of the Other Statues Collection
Sitting calmly and with grace and dignity, the statue of Rosa Parks exhibits the characteristics that made her a beacon for the Civil Rights movement when she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. Her statue was the first statue commissioned by Congress since 1873, and was unveiled in the Capital Rotunda in 2013, nearly 100 years after Rosa Parks birth.
Location – National Statuary Hall, representing Illinois
Frances Willard is known for her pioneering work with the temperance movement and for her contributions to women’s higher education and women’s suffrage. Her statue was the first honoring a woman that was donated to the statuary collection.
Location – Emancipation Hall, Capitol Visitor Center, part of the Other Statues Collection
The bronze bust of abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Sojourner Truth is the first sculpture to honor an African American woman in the United States Capitol. Sojourner Truth, whose birth name was Isabella Baumfree. was born a slave in 1797 in New York. During her 86 year life span, she saw the abolition of slavery, not just in New York, but throughout the country. She spent most of her free life actively and extensively speaking out against slavery and for women’s rights, including speaking at the first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester.
Location – Emancipation Hall, Capitol Visitor Center representing Alabama
An illness at the age of 19 months left Helen Keller blind, deaf and without the ability to speak. Her teacher, Anne Sullivan was able to break through her blackness by teaching her sign language. Eventually, Helen Keller went on to be the first deaf-blind person to get a BA degree, graduating from Radcliffe College, Harvard University. She went on to become a world famous speaker and author, especially as an advocate for people with disabilities.
Location – Emancipation Hall, Capitol Visitor Center representing Washington
Mother Joseph is recognized as one of the first architects in the Northwest. Mother Joseph was responsible for the completion of eleven hospitals, seven academies, five schools for Native American children, and two orphanages throughout an area that now encompasses Washington, northern Oregon, Idaho, and Montana.
Location – Emancipation Hall, Capitol Visitor Center representing Montana
Jeanette Rankin was the first woman to be elected to the US House of Representatives in 1916, at the age of 36, and then after a hiatus, was reelected again in 1940. Rankin was a strong advocate for peace all throughout her life. She voted against America’s entry into World Wars I and II and was the only member of Congress to oppose the declaration of war on Japan.
Location – Emancipation Hall, Capitol Visitor Center representing North Dakota
Only seventeen years old and carrying he infant son, Sakakawea (or Sacagawea) accompanied the Lewis and Clark expedition to explore the Louisiana Territory. She was critical to the success of the journey, acting as interpreter to the Indian tribes along the route. Her presence as a woman on the expedition helped to convince the Shoshone and Hidatsa people they encountered that theirs was a peaceful mission of exploration.
Maria L. Sanford
Location – Emancipation Hall, Capitol Visitor Center representing Minnesota
Born in 1836, Maria Sanford was a life long teacher and educator. She was one of the first women named to a college professorship. She started teaching in country day schools at the age of 16. After graduating from Connecticut Normal School where she used her dowry funds for tuition, she rose in the ranks of local and national educators. She became principal and then superintendent of schools in Chester County, Pennsylvania, and then served as professor of history at Swarthmore College from 1871 to 1880. From 1880 to 1909 she was on the faculty of the University of Minnesota where she was a professor of rhetoric and elocution, and lectured on literature and art history.
Location – Emancipation Hall, Capitol Visitor Center representing Nevada
Sarah Winnemucca (1844–1891) was a member of the Paiute tribe born in what would later become the state of Nevada and was the daughter of the Chief Winnemucca. Due to her skill with languages, she acted as an interpreter and negotiator between her people and the U.S. Army. She also worked as a spokesperson for her people, and gave over 300 speeches to win support for them. She was the first Native American woman to write a book – her autobiography in 1883 titled Life among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims. She also started a school for Native Americans, where she taught children both in their native language and in English.
Esther Hobart Morris
Location – Hall of Columns, representing Wyoming
Esther Hobart Morris was the first woman to become Justice of the Peace in the US. Born in 1814, she became an early pioneer of the women’s suffrage movement, and played a key role in Wyoming’s early passage of a suffrage amendment in 1869.
Location – Hall of Columns, representing Colorado
Florence Sabin was a pioneer for women in the medical field. She was the first woman to graduate from the Johns Hopkins Medical School, where she later also had the distinction of being the first woman to hold a full professorship. She was also the first woman elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and the first woman to head a department at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. In her retirement years, she became a public health activist in Colorado.
Learning about the history of all these amazing women has been a humbling experience. Most are not overtly famous historical figures, yet each in her own right has done so much for the benefit of others in her time. Indirectly, my life has also benefited from their work.
I hope that the next time you visit Washington DC you will take some time to search out the memorials, monuments and sculptures honoring all these great women. And if you have a mother, aunt, grandmother, sister, niece, daughter, granddaughter or best female friend, take them with you to learn about the legacy of these great role models.
Thanks for visiting.