Sometimes the stars align. This is one such instance.
March marks Women’s History Month. Virginia also will soon be in the process of commissioning a statue of Barbara Johns to stand in the U.S. Capitol to replace the one of Robert E. Lee that has been removed.
Johns is a figure who has become more famous in death than she was in life. In 1951, the 16-year-old led a student walkout to protest conditions at her segregated school in Prince Edward County, which set off a series of legal events that eventually got incorporated into the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case before the U.S. Supreme Court that brought down segregation.
The commissioning of that statue highlights more than our reappraisal of Confederate symbols; it highlights the dearth of women who have been immortalized in bronze.
Each state is allowed two statues at the U.S. Capitol. Out of 100, only nine are women — Johns would be the 10th. Closer to home, the ratio is surely lower than that. Virginia has tried to make up for that deficit through the Virginia Women’s Monument in Richmond, which will eventually include 12 statues of women important to Virginia’s history. So far, seven are in place. It seems easier (and perhaps less expensive) to take down a statue than to put one up. There also are women depicted in the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial in Richmond. But that’s Richmond. What about the rest of the state?
Radford is unusual because it actually has put up a statue to a woman. In 2016, it dedicated a statue of Mary Draper Ingles, the 23-year-old pioneer woman who walked 500 miles to get back home after being captured by Shawnee Indians in 1755 and taken to Kentucky.
Surely Radford is not the only community with a woman in its history who deserves statuary recognition? That’s a rhetorical question. We can think of a lot of others. This is by no means a comprehensive list, more of a conversation starter — with emphasis on the women not already including in the Virginia Women’s Monument. We’ll also skip over some of the other famous women in Virginia history — such as Pocahontas and Nancy Astor — to focus on less familiar names that shouldn’t be.
Barbara Johns. She’s getting her due in Washington, but what about at home? Shouldn’t there be a statue of her in Farmville? That’s also a rhetorical question. Here’s an idea: While Virginia is commissioning a statue of Johns for the Capitol, it should commission a duplicate to put up in her hometown.
Anna Whitehead Bodeker. She was the founding president of the state’s first women’s suffrage organization — in Richmond in 1870. The following year, she went to the polls and insisted on a ballot. She was turned away, but not before she stuffed a note in the ballot box asserting her belief that she had a constitutional right to vote. The Library of Virginia has an engraving of her visit to the polls which would make a fine piece of art to work from.
Orra Langhorne. She grew up in Rockingham County, was educated at what was then Hollins College, and then, after marriage, settled in Lynchburg. She spent decades advocating for women’s suffrage. She testified before the General Assembly, she testified before Congress, she founded and led the state’s second women’s suffrage organization after the first one faded away. Alas, to the best of our knowledge, there are no known photographs of her for a sculptor to follow.
Elizabeth Otey. She was Langhorne’s niece, and, between them, Lynchburg was a center for the women’s suffrage movement. Otey earned a doctorate in economics — at a time when it was unusual for women to go to college at all — and worked for the U.S. Labor Department in the early 1900s where she advocated for child labor laws. Later, she returned to Lynchburg and holds another place in history: She became the first woman nominated by a major party for statewide office. In 1921, she was the Republican candidate for superintendent of public instruction, then an elected office. She lost — as Republicans then did — but she helped push back the barriers of what was considered possible.
Lillie Davis Custis. Otey might have been the first woman nominated by a major party for statewide office in Virginia, but she wasn’t the first to run statewide. She shares that honor with Custis. She was from Accomack County and was an “independent socialist” candidate for governor in 1921. She didn’t fare well, as you might suspect. She polled just 227 votes — 0.11% — but still earned her place in history as the first woman to run for governor. You need not be a socialist to recognize history.
Henrietta Lacks: Her life was unremarkable but her death has made her famous. She was born in Roanoke in 1920 and lived the first few years of her life in the city’s West End neighborhood. When her mother died in childbirth in 1924, her father moved the remaining family to Halifax County. In time, she grew up, married and moved to Baltimore, where she died in 1951 at age 31 due to cervical cancer. Before her death, doctors took some cell samples without her knowledge or consent. Those cells remain alive today. They became the first cells ever successfully cloned and have gone on to become part of the greatest medical advances in history, from helping to develop the polio vaccine to aiding the study of genome mapping. By some estimates, scientists have grown 20 tons of cells from the samples. Her story was told in the best-seller “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Both Roanoke and Halifax County could claim rights to a statue to Lacks.
Sarah Fain and Helen T. Henderson. Fain, of Norfolk, and Henderson, of Buchanan County, were the first female state legislators elected in Virginia — in 1923.
Richard and Mildred Loving. They were the Caroline County couple who in 1967 successfully challenged the state’s ban on interracial marriages.
Roger Airliner Young. She was born in Clifton Forge, although her family didn’t stay there long. Still, Clifton Forge — and Virginia — can claim to the birthplace of the first Black women to earn a doctorate in zoology. She won early acclaim as a researcher but her career was sidelined by her political activism. Black colleges seemed reluctant to hire her lest they offend the local white power structure. Ultimately, Young fell victim to her own research. She started as losing her eyesight as result of her work with ultraviolet radiation. A coalition of environmental groups now runs a fellowship program in her honor. Shouldn’t Virginia recognize her as well?