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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A trifle of women at the National Portrait Gallery

The exhibit, A Will of Their Own: Judith Sargent Murray and Women of Achievement in the Early Republic at the National Portrait Gallery/Patricia Leslie.  That's Mrs. Murray centered on the wall, and Phillis Wheatley's book in a case in front of the Murray portrait.

In an alcove at the end of a hallway at the National Portrait Gallery is a tiny exhibit, A Will of Their Own: Judith Sargent Murray and Women of Achievement in the Early Republic which features "eight [although a guard and I could only find seven] remarkable women from the early days of this nation."

As you enter the Portrait Gallery on F Street and turn right on the first floor, you'll spy in the distance, the portrait of Judith Sargent Murray surrounded on adjacent walls by the other women in the show. 

John Singleton Copley (1738–1815), Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820), Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois. Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund.  Mrs. Murray wrote “On the Equality of the Sexes” in 1790, arguing that women were just as capable of intellectual accomplishment as men and that an education would liberate women from economic dependence. In 1798, Murray became the first woman in America to self-publish a book: The Gleaner.

Where was Margaret Todd Whetten (1739-1809) whom I discovered later on the website?  We could not find her.
Does it matter?

Margaret Todd Whetten whose home in New York City housed American spies during the American Revolution.  President George Washington sent her a "thank you" letter.

On the upcoming 100th anniversary of the suffragists' march down Pennsylvania Avenue which will be commemorated by another march March 3, 2013, one would think the Portrait Gallery could have done better.

Especially since one of its Smithsonian sisters, the National Museum of American History, is one of the presenters of the Suffrage Centennial Celebration.

The Portrait Gallery says its exhibit is about "the struggle for women’s rights," and these "portraits showcase the important achievements of women during this period. Together, they also demonstrate the early efforts to gain gender equality in America."

Prithee, how did Theodosia Burr Alston (1783-1813) "demonstrate the early efforts to gain gender equality in America"? 

She was well-educated and the daughter of Vice President Aaron Burr and wife of wealthy landowner Joseph Alston, and that qualifies her to be "a woman of achievement"?  Oh, and she was a "hostess" and lost at sea.  I guess I am missing something.  A struggle by the Portrait Gallery to come up with meaningful women of the era from its collection, perhaps.

John Vanderlyn (1776-1852), Theodosia Burr Alston, 1802, Yale Library/Wikimedia Commons. This portrait is not in the show.

Of the eight portraits listed, six belong to the Portrait Gallery which helps reduce costs for an exhibition.

In checking six websites* for notable American women in history, only four of the eight women in the show are found, and they are not listed at every site:  Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818) was listed on four; Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-1784), three; Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton (1774-1821), two; and Patience Wright (1725-1786), one.

Anne Catharine Hoof Green (c.1720-1775) is also included in the exhibition.

Pages from Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) by Phillis Wheatley. She came to the colonies as a slave from Africa and became the first African American to publish a book. (The white splashes in the picture are lights reflected in the glass.)
For women of that era, where are Molly Pitcher, Deborah Sampson, Sacajawea, and Hannah Adams?  Just asking.  Or why focus on “early women” only?

The Portrait Gallery's website says "the eight women who are highlighted here did not produce a collective movement for women’s rights, but they were important in sowing the seeds for future progress." 

In the meantime, I hope readers participate next month in Women's History Month and the events of March 1-3 and march in the centennial parade.  After the 1913 parade, it took eight more years before the 19th amendment was ratified, and women gained the right to vote. How long will it take to elect a woman, president?

The Terra Foundation for American Art sponsored the Portrait Gallery's exhibit and all the related publications and programs.

Whenever I visit the National Portrait Gallery, I usually stop by the second floor to see the reproduction of Augustus Saint-Gaedens's 1891 memorial to Clover Adams which her husband, Henry Adams, commissioned after her suicide in 1885. The original is at Mrs. Adams's gravesite in Washington's Rock Creek Cemetery.

What: A Will of Their Own: Judith Sargent Murray and Women of Achievement in the Early Republic

When: 11:30 a.m.- 7 p.m. every day now through September 2, 2013

Where: The National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F Streets NW, Washington, D.C.  20001

How much:  No charge

Metro station:  Gallery Place-Chinatown or walk 10 minutes from Metro Center

For more information: 202-633-8300

*The six websites checked were:   Women in History,   Discovering American Women's History Online,  
75 Suffragists, the Hip Forums, Important and Famous Women in America,  and American Women in History

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