The Past Is Female Too: Mom-uments

The three of us are lucky to hail from a long lineage of tough, smart women, and there’s no better time to celebrate this than in July and August, the birth-months of our mother and both of our grandmothers.

Now,  it’s fair to note that I have said, on the record, in various scholarly places, that physical monuments are a silly and ineffective way to properly commemorate the past.They tell a single, narrow story. They lack context. They tend to reflect the political ideals of a certain group of people who had the capital and access to put up a monument in the first place. If I never see another poorly written historic plaque, it will be too soon.

But I am more than happy to get off my high horse (monument humor) for mothers. I’m happy to put moms up on a pedestal (there it is again) because moms are the best, no context needed. My own mother met me in the Atlanta airport when I had a layover last week, which means she traveled to the world’s busiest airport on a day when she absolutely did not have to. (Although she did bring me anti-aging eye cream and a concealer which was “far too pale for her” so, you know, message received, Mom.)

Moms are saints. May their statues be built up in granite and bronze, tall and looming over everyone else, forever. Building on our previous editions of The Past is Female Too, here are five interesting Mom-uments worth checking out on your next road trip.

WHOLESOME: Whistler’s Mother in Ashland, Pennsylvania

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Just an hour from where our mother grew up in Scranton, PA, is an 8-foot-tall bronze statue honoring all mothers. It’s modeled after the famous painting by James McNeil Whistler, of his own mother, and it features a line from Samuel Taylor Coleridge on its base: “A Mother is the Holiest Thing Alive.” The Ashland Boys Association designed the monument and it was created through the Works Progress Administration, unveiled in 1938 by the town’s two oldest mothers. 

"Madonna of the Trail" (circa 1929) by August Leimbach

FREQUENT: Madonna of the Trail, multiple locations 

In 1911, the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution lobbied President Harry Truman to put up 12 identical statues of a pioneer woman along Old Trails Road, which winds through 12 states from East to West. They had in mind a statue similar to this elegant, feminine one of Sacajawea, which was designed by female sculptor Alice Cooper. But instead, the very male, very German sculptor August Leimbach decided to focus on the brute strength of the pioneer wife, fighting off danger as her children cling to her skirts. Or maybe a pioneer man in drag. Who’s to say? If you live in the middle of the country, from coast to coast you can find one in your state here.  

TRULY SOMETHING NEW: Mother Featherlegs in Lusk, Wyoming

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Charlotte Shephard didn’t get the nickname “Mother Featherlegs” for being an actual mother, though she was one. Instead, as her gravesite memorial reads: Here lies Mother Featherlegs. So called, as in her ruffled pantalettes she looked like a feather-legged chicken in a high wind. She was roadhouse ma’am.” In case you need a translation, M.F. was an enterprising lady of the night who founded a brothel at the base of the Rawhide Buttes (I dunno, it’s like, what did you think your life would look like living in the Rawhide Buttes?)

She fell in with the wrong crowd, specifically her companion Dangerous Dick. “Dangerous” should really have been called “Whatta” – he murdered Featherlegs, abandoned her body and fled with her money and jewels in 1879. But the joke’s on Dick. Featherlegs got a memorial in 1964, and Dangerous Dick got a brutal case of frontier justice, handed the death penalty for her murder.

TAKES A DARK TURN: Hannah Dunston with a Hatchet in Penacook New Hampshirebscawen-dustin

Okay, this one is somewhat problematic. This was the first publicly-funded monument in the state of New Hampshire, not surprising based on what we already know about That Odd Place. But it was also the very first statue of a woman n the U.S.. It commemorates Hannah Dunston, a Puritan woman from Haverhill, Massachusetts. When Dunston and her newborn baby were taken captive by native Abenaki people in an extremely violent raid during King William’s War, she retaliated against her captors (for allegedly killing her baby) by scalping an Abenaki family of 10. Her story was not widely known until about 100 years after the fact, when she became a kind of a folk hero for political causes of the 19th century (claaaasic commemoration as a social/political tool.) Her statue in New Hampshire features a handful of scalps. Eesh.

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REDEEMING: Melvinia Shields in Kingston, Georgia

Here’s a true matriarch. Born a slave in 1844, Melvinia Shields was just six years old when she was sold from a South Carolina plantation, torn away from her family and anyone she knew, for the sum of $475. She was sold to a small farm near Atlanta, where as a teenager she was impregnated – multiple times – by a white man, or several white men, in years leading up to the Civil War. Emancipated after the war, Shields moved to Kingston, Georgia. She became a midwife and grandmother and cared for a whole community, before being buried in an unmarked grave.

But for one descendant of Melvinia Shields, she likely would have remained in that unmarked grave. She had a son who moved to Birmingham, and his children moved to Chicago. One of those children gave birth to Michelle Robinson, who went on to marry a community organizer named Barack.

Here’s a suggestion for one more statue – our two grandmothers, our mother and father’s moms, embracing.

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