Finding American Athena

DSC_0994The cover photo for Americanathena.com comes from one of Jacksonville’s key landmarks, a memorial to Morgan County residents who served in the Civil War. Dedicated in 1920, the monument provides some clues about how Jacksonville residents of the early twentieth century perceived men’s and women’s civic responsibilities. 

In a previous post on finding rural women, I discussed the two images of women on the frontier as either brave, resourceful heroines or oppressed drudges. In the 1830s, most writers and observers from the wealthier classes emphasized the drudgery. The heroic images emerged in the early twentieth century as white Americans, eager for empire, romanticized the westward movement. By the 1930s, heroic rural women also helped impoverished Americans feel better about “making do.”

Created in the years following the First World War (in conjunction with a WWI memorial to the west), the monument has traces of art deco stylings and was surely quite modern at the moment of its unveiling. Located in the downtown square, Jacksonville Mainstreet – a local organization – had it fully restored just a few years ago as part of greater efforts to restore the downtown area (you can see a quick video about it here).

The first thing that struck me as odd about this monument is its complete lack of Civil War imagery. In many ways it more closely resembles WWI monuments. It has symbols of the Union, but there are no Union soldiers or reliefs of battles. A confident bronze Columbia with laurels, sword, and shield symbolizes the triumph of the Union. To her east is a nude (but modest) man about to draw his sword. As he sits under the words, “Patriotism answers the call to arms,” he symbolizes loyalty and the soldier’s sacrifice. To her west is a robed woman and nude (but modest) child. At the base are the names of well over 1,000 Morgan County residents who served in the Civil War (click the link to see a list). All are men.

The bronze tablets listing the names of Morgan County soldiers.

The bronze tablets listing the names of Morgan County soldiers.

DSC_0997Without a doubt this was a man’s war. The words under Columbia’s feet are clear about that. It reads, “In memory of the men whose stalwart patriotism and willing sacrifice preserved the union and abolished slavery.” So to Jacksonville residents in 1920, 55 years after the end of the war (when some veterans were still alive and well), the part of the conflict worth memorializing was the part where men joined the military and engaged in battles. Most war memorials do that. If you think carefully about it, the monument also implies that this was a white man’s war, wherein white people granted slaves their freedom (as opposed to African Americans working to end slavery on their terms).

So if this is a man’s war, what is the woman doing there? Let’s take a closer look. Again, the monument was dedicated in 1920, the same year that the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. In keeping with popular sentiment that praised women’s contributions during WWI and lauded the emergence of a “New Woman,” the Morgan County memorial is somewhat progressive. DSC_0991She sits with a child under the words, “To the noble women whose prayers and faith and heroic deeds will never be forgotten.” If we break this down a little, its saying that women’s primary roles are as keepers of the faith, most likely in a private home setting. On the other hand, she is a hero on account of her nondescript heroic deeds. I may be looking too much into this, but it seems the words imply that women can have both private and public roles. Hm. The statue itself suggests this as well. The child resting its head on her shoulder indicates she has some maternal proclivities, but the stout, muscular woman is not exactly embracing the child. Her left hand rests on the monument itself while she clutches a sword in her right. With a furled brow, she looks outward with a sense purpose. The helmet on her lap is more than ornamental. In short, she’s not fretfully waiting for news of a soldier husband/son/brother/friend. She has a sense of purpose.

A more detailed photo from the north side shows she is less a mother tending the hearth and more an Athena, ready for battle. She is dressed, but just baDSC_0990rely so in utilitarian clothing. Her arms are exposed, implying that she is ready to exert herself and that sword. IC student Lucas Chamberlain ’16, who is researching women’s education in Jacksonville for his senior research project, took one look at this and likened the child to the image of Nike (Goddess of Victory) that often appears alongside Athena in ancient Greek statuary. “Maybe in the American context, the child is victory,” Lucas posited. It could very well be that image of the child represents the promise of a new generation of patriots.

All of this leaves room for some interpretation that perhaps women can play a variety of roles both in the home and on the battlefield. It is also important to note that the child appears to be male, though we can’t say for sure due to its modesty. This could be a comment on mother’s obligations to rear patriotic, battle-ready sons. During the First World War, the federal government’s Committee on Public Information – the agency responsible for propaganda – launched a full-on war against pacifist mothers who refused to send their sons into battle. This statue might be playing on that image, with which Americans at the time would have identified. The fact that she’s barefoot suggests that she’s not exactly battle-ready, but then again, neither is the sword-wielding nude man to the east. We’ll just credit the bare feet to artistic license.

There’s a lot going on there. In most ways she embodies gendered expectations for women. But in other ways, she doesn’t. Rather than expressing some kind of historical truth, the statue tells us something about how members of the community thought about women in 1920. They acknowledged that women’s roles might be changing, yet they hesitated to fully embrace women’s equality. As they planned the monument, only men’s names were raised in bronze. Looking toward the future, Jacksonville residents believed that we, in 2015, should know who they were so we can research the men and find them in the census, land records, court documents, and other measures of active citizenship. The women, though recognized, remain invisible. Forgotten. The women must have done something if they had helmets and swords, but the good people of Morgan County in 1920 had no way to quantify that. Nor did they believe they should make an effort to do so.

These are only my first impressions. On warm summer nights, my husband and I like to take the kids downtown for frozen yoghurt at the most excellent Frozen Penguin, and then spend some time relaxing on the square. At this point, in order to better understand my initial thoughts, I plan to look more into the monument, the artist, and the planning that went into it. Stay tuned.

For today’s post, I owe a shout out to historian Cynthia Culver Prescott, whose excellent research on public monuments featuring pioneer women inspired me to look a bit more closely at the Civil War monument.

This post is also dedicated to my daughter who turns 10 years old today and inspires my work in women’s history. As Historian Margaret Beattie Bogue once said: “Babies make us better people and better historians.”

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