IT'S A well-known fact that history is owned by the victors.
And by victors, what we mean is the rich white guys.
Oh, don’t get your jockstrap in a beta male bunge—this is not an attack, just an observation.
America may ostensibly be the most diverse, democratic country the planet has ever seen, but if we glance around, our origin narrative appears about as representative as a moldering powdered wig.
We’ve got monuments, busts and portraits of practically every rosy-cheeked fellow that ever tapped his walking stick on these conquered lands, their names and faces carved in stone to remind future generations of their heroics.
Come to think of it, they didn’t even have to win to dominate history. Drive around the South long enough and you’ll tread on so many “Robert E. Lee” highways you’d think the Confederacy came out on top of the Civil War. (According to YouTube, a frightening amount of college students actually believe this to be so.)
Look, I have nothing against our founding fathers or the long-gone overlords whose names decorate our streets. It’s just that if their effigies outweigh everyone else’s, this leads to an ever-simplified cast of characters as civilization drives its one-way course through time. We already cram the faces of Black History into the shortest month of the year, and poor immigrants are all kind of lumped into a dreary image of a bunch of babushkas and bad teeth.
And when it comes to women, we see very little of them at all.
This Friday is Georgia Day, and as we celebrate the 283rd anniversary of the founding of the 13th colony, let us be reminded that Savannah was not built by finely-buckled boots alone. I mean, really, General James Oglethorpe couldn’t have landed on Yamacraw Bluff if someone hadn’t packed his trunk and snacks.
Sure, it’s assumed that behind every great man is a great woman, but that doesn’t mollify the fact that there isn’t enough known about Elizabeth Oglethorpe to fill her own Wikipedia page.
Of course, it’s not surprising that there weren’t many women making strides in civic life back then, limited as they were by circumstances such as being considered the property of their husbands and not being allowed to wear pants.
(They couldn’t file for patents, either, which is why Catharine Littlefield Greene is best known as a feisty Revolutionary War widow instead of the brain behind the cotton gin.)
Thanks to those Georgia Historical Society bronze markers by the side of road, we do know at least one woman who played a vital role in getting this party started. The daughter of an English trader and a Creek native, Mary Musgrove handled communication between General O and Chief Tomochichi and fought for native land rights, especially her own.
Savvy Ms. Mary also operated a bustling trading post on the Savannah River and hosted important 18th-century dignitaries. The archaeological remains of her home and business might be an important historic testaments to native culture and female entrepreneurship had they not had the misfortune to exist on land later bought by, well, industrial-minded rich dudes. The sugar refinery absorbed the remains of her house at Port Wentworth in the 1920s, and the trading post was excavated in 2002 and filled in with concrete by the Georgia Ports Authority.
Mary’s story is drummed into the historical record (if you’re a public school fourth grader, anyway) but accounts of Savannah’s other influential women aren’t so obvious, since there’s a dearth of monuments dedicated to their accomplishments.
This has not escaped the attention of SCAD President and founder Paula Wallace. During the 2008 renovation of Arnold Hall on Bull Street that upgraded the abandoned junior high into a first-class college arts facility, there was no question that the 1935 public works mural above the auditorium stage would remain. Painted by WPA artist William Hoffman during the FDR era, the mural depicts Georgia history’s all-male revue in glittering green and gold, perhaps an outdated image for SCAD’s dynamic, diverse student body.
A person of mighty influence herself, President Wallace decided to balance historic preservation with social progress by commissioning tributes to ten local women, an “elite cadre of trailblazers whose remarkable ideas, insightful leadership and distinguished service have profoundly sculpted the city of Savannah.” These “paragons of civic virtue” will line the adjoining walls of the mural, taking their rightful place among the revered. (They also get a better view of the stage.)
Carved on 4-foot poplar disks by SCAD alum Michael Porten, the Savannah Women of Vision are reproduced in profile, regal as emperors adorning Roman coins. Some may feel that there ought to have been a female artist on the job, but Porten’s diverse portfolio and depth of talent are a first-rate match for the project.
Acknowledging the inescapable conciliations between gender and art, Porten recognizes the honor of the task.
“As a human, the experience was great. I did as much research as I could with each woman. I tried to know them ... and make the most truthful and flattering portraits I could,” he writes.
Among those captured in bas-relief are legendary grand dames Mary Musgrove, Juliette Gordon Low and Flannery O’Connor as well as lesser-known luminaries Abigail Minus, one of Savannah’s original Jewish settlers in 1733, public school anchor Frances Wong and Mother Mathilda Beasley, Georgia’s first African American nun and righteous renegade who educated black children when it was still illegal.
There’s also homage paid to the living: The matriarch of Savannah’s preservation movement, Emma Adler, finally gets her three-dimensional due, as does Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears. Cancer hospital patron Nancy N. Lewis will be forever exalted here along with philanthropist and tastemaker Alice Jepson, without whom Savannah would be a lot less artful. (Not to parse the point, but her husband, businessman Robert S. Jepson, has his own Wikipedia page.)
“Women have always been essential to the success of our state,” confirms President Wallace, who will dedicate the installation at a ceremony this Friday, Feb. 12. “Georgia Day provides the perfect opportunity to celebrate ten of our finest citizens—past and present.”
And let’s not forget the future: There’s plenty of room for more women on the walls, and nominations can be submitted at the Office of the President.
Listen, the rich white guys of history can have their bronze busts and their phallic statues; they were there, too. But as time necessitates the winnowing of events and people into a teachable narrative, it’s so important that we include layers—the female perspective, the African American experience, the accounts of the huddled masses, the tired and poor—to enrich the real American story for future generations.
And we need to see a far better variety of faces reflected in the history we’re making now.
‘Cause I’ll be damned if in two hundred years, my great, great, great grandkids have nothing to look at but 50-foot statues of the Koch Brothers.