Encyclopedia Womannica

Feminists: Adelaide Johnson

Episode Summary

Adelaide Johnson (1859-1955) was a visual artist devoted to promoting gender equality. She was known as “The Sculptor of the Women’s Movement.”

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

This month of Encyclopedia Womannica is sponsored by Fiverr. Fiverr’s marketplace helps the world’s feminists get more done with less. Take Five and show your support for Fiverr’s new store at FVRR.co/women, where they feature over 100 of the platform’s top female talent.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

If you’re just tuning in for the first time, here’s the deal. We’re telling the stories of women from throughout history and around the world who you may not know about but definitely should. Each month is themed and in honor of Women’s History Month, March is all about feminists, women who fought for gender equity. 

Part of the reason we decided to create Encyclopedia Womannica was to rectify the fact that women were often missing from the pages of our history books growing up. That absence is also notable when it comes to public statues. As of 2011, just 8 percent of public outdoor statues in the U.S. depicted women, according to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Art Inventories Catalog. The lack of such art exemplifies the fact that women’s historical contributions are too often undervalued or ignored. 

Our feminist of the day worked to change that. She was devoted to promoting gender equality and was known as “The Sculptor of the Women’s Movement.” Today, her work can be seen in the U.S. Capitol building. Let’s talk about Adelaide Johnson. 

Sarah Adeline Johnson was born in 1859 in Plymouth, Illinois, on her family’s farm. 

She first began her artistic studies at the St. Louis School of Design. She excelled there and her work was exhibited at the St. Louis Exposition of 1877, where she won two prizes for wood carvings. 

Sarah was unconventional. In 1878 she changed her name from Sarah Adeline to Adelaide, a name she thought had more dramatic flair.

Adelaide moved to Chicago and supported herself with her art. 

In January of 1882, Adelaide suffered serious injury. She was hurrying to her studio, slipped and fell 20 feet down an open elevator shaft. She sued the company at fault and received $15,000. She used the money to fund further artistic study in Europe. 

Adelaide studied sculpture in Dresden, Germany and in Rome, Italy and worked in cities including London, New York and Washington.  

By the 1890s, it was clear in her work that she was dedicated to the feminist movement. In 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, she exhibited individual busts of the most famous suffragists. Her goal was to have those sculptures placed in the U.S. Capitol building alongside the men who shaped the country. The people with the power to make that happen weren’t into it. 

Instead, the busts served a much different purpose. In 1896, Adelaide married a British businessman 11 years her junior named Frederick Jenkins. The ceremony bucked tradition. The suffragist busts served as Adelaide’s bridesmaids, the minister was a woman and Frederick took Adelaide’s last name. He said he did so as, “the tribute love pays to genius.” 

Fun fact: Adelaide and Frederick were both vegetarians. Still, that wasn’t enough to keep the marriage going and the couple divorced after twelve years.             

Adelaide remained determined to get a statue honoring the suffragists into the U.S. Capitol. She received a commission from the National Woman’s Party, an organization founded by Alice Paul who we’ll be covering later this month and Lucy Burns. 

Out of an 8 ton slab of marble, Adelaide sculpted what she called "Memorial to the Pioneers of the Women's Suffrage Movement." It’s a statue of Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. In the meantime, the National Woman’s Party successfully fought for the piece to be dedicated at the Capitol. Congress did so on Susan B. Anthony’s birthday, February 15th, 1921, and held a reception honoring Adelaide. 

Despite the fanfare, the sculpture was placed in the crypt of the Capitol building for more than 70 years. It was finally moved to the rotunda in 1997. 

The completion of that piece was Adelaide’s career apex. Afterwards, she struggled financially. She was picky about sales, refusing to sell her art for less than what she thought it was worth. Adelaide also failed to pay her taxes and was therefore evicted. Before moving out, she protested by inviting members of the press to watch her disfigure her work. Truly strapped for cash, Adelaide even attempted to turn things around by competing on a TV quiz show. 

Adelaide was a passionate, talented artist and activist with a big personality. She frequently lied about her age, going so far as to have a celebration for her 100th birthday when she was just 88. 

Adelaide died in 1955, she was 96 years old. She’s buried at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC. 

All month we’re talking about feminists. We’ve covered feminists in every theme so far. What differentiates this month is that we will be looking at women who were particularly important to the women’s rights movement, the suffrage movement, and/or modern feminism and feminist theory. On Saturdays, we’re talking about modern feminists brought to you by this month’s sponsor, Fiverr. On Sundays, we’re highlighting favorite feminists from past months chosen by other podcast hosts we love. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our new Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter. You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram @EncyclopediaWomannica and you can follow me directly on twitter @jennymkaplan.

This month of Encyclopedia Womannica is brought to you by Fiverr, an online digital services marketplace connecting businesses with women who are creating, designing, copywriting, programming, editing, and more. 

For women the ability to work flexibly and on our own terms is highly valued. Fiverr is one of the rare platforms where globally, women are on average making 19% more than men. That’s something to celebrate this Women’s History Month as we call for more industry leaders to join with Fiverr and make strides in closing the gap, and supporting women in challenging current stereotypes and the status quo. 

Fiverr’s marketplace helps the world’s feminists get more done with less. Take Five and learn more about how Fiverr is celebrating International Women's Day by supporting the female talent on Fiverr’s platform at FVRR.co/women.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator. Talk to you tomorrow!