Many 19th century artists and professional women chose not to marry. Pioneering physician Harriot K. Hunt actually gathered friends together early in the century to celebrate the 25th anniversary of what she called her “marriage” to her profession. So it was no surprise that sculptor Adelaide Johnson, Illinois-born and well traveled, remained single well into her 30s, dedicated to art and to the women’s movement. By 1893, she was showing her white marble busts of movement leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott at the year’s biggest event, the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
The surprise came three years later, when Johnson got married. The man, Alexander Jenkins, was English, a Christian Scientist and vegetarian like Johnson, and, at 25, he was 12 years younger than she. “We reckon not by years but by growth,” she said and the actual wedding was as unconventional as everything else about the couple.
The wedding ceremony was held at her studio in Washington, D.C., surrounded by those sculptured busts of Stanton, Anthony and Mott as silent bridesmaids. With one of the few female ministers in the world presiding, the couple was pronounced “Mr. and Mrs. Johnson.” He was, Jenkins said, happy to take her name “as the tribute love pays to genius.” Long before the phrase was widely used, the Johnsons heralded the matrimony of “the new woman to the new man.”
Mr. Johnson lasted only 12 years. Disappointed by his lack of continued “growth,” she said, the sculptor became unwedded again. But she continued to work, creating one of the most controversial pieces of art in our history–a seven-ton Carrera marble life-sized sculpture of her three lifelong movement heroes. The epic work was donated to the U.S. government in a ceremony at the Capitol building on Feb. 15, 1921, commemorating Susan B. Anthony’s birthday, which had become an unofficial feminist holiday. In a celebratory mood, a year after the right to vote had been won, the event–the first honoring a woman at the U.S. Capitol–was taken as evidence that women had come into their own. Unfortunately, the celebration was short-lived. The sculpture was ridiculed, called “Three Women in a Tub,” consigned to the building’s basement for more than half a century and only recently restored to view.
Johnson lived to be 96–always lying about her age–and died in 1955. She never attempted marriage again.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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For more information:
The Architect of the Capitol–
Portrait Monument to Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton,
and Susan B. Anthony:
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