Jan-Michelle Sawyer: Sargent sculptures depict historical revisionism | TheUnion.com

Jan-Michelle Sawyer: Sargent sculptures depict historical revisionism

Jan-Michelle Sawyer
Other Voices

As an educator and professional commemorative sculptor, I applaud what the Marching Presidents have taken upon themselves on behalf of our historically enriched community by commissioning a life-size sculpture honoring Senator Aaron Sargent and Ellen Clark Sargent.

Historians have documented that Ellen Clark was a devoted suffragette who, throughout her life, fought to bring a woman’s right to vote to the attention of the American people. She never gave up on this and was aided in seeing her vision brought before Congress by her husband, Sen. Aaron Sargent.

The senator is recorded as having presented the proposition of the 19th Amendment to Congress but there is scant information available to prove he wholeheartedly supported or lobbied hard for the amendment.

Many historians have questioned how much of the 19th Amendment Sen. Sargent should be given credit for. We know the Sargents were friends with Susan B. Anthony and that she stayed with the Sargents for weeks at a time at their home in Nevada City.

I do not want this sculpture to be yet another example of public art getting history wrong.

We know too that Ellen Clark Sargent formed the first women’s suffrage group in Nevada City. In 1869, she served as president of similar organizations and presided at conventions called to gather women together and encourage them to continue fighting for the right to vote. It should not be ignored that it was the influence and power of the suffragettes that brought a woman’s right to vote to Congress. They got their vehicle in doing so with Senator Sargent proposing the amendment to Congress.

Considering Ellen Clark Sargent’s fervent belief in women’s rights, it is doubtful Aaron Sargent woke up one morning (without serious encouragement from his wife) to propose the wording for the eventual 19th Amendment. Incidentally, the wording follows the language and tempo of other amendments and it is believed the senator merely replaced a few words.

Historians believe Susan B. Anthony and Ellen Clark Sargent had a direct influence in convincing the senator to present the proposal to Congress. It is also not too farfetched to imagine that the senator’s own opinions about women’s rights were influenced by the then very active Nevada City suffragettes. To place Ellen Clark Sargent behind her husband seems historically unfitting and inaccurate.

Sen. Sargent left a dark stain on his legacy when he supported and actively campaigned for passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Historians have taken issue with the senator for supporting and lobbying strongly for such a cruel and unfair treatment of the Chinese. This is particularly unfortunate as the Chinese were once integral to Nevada County’s gold mining industry as well as in the building of its railroads.

It seems inappropriate to celebrate a man who was in fact a racist and bigot. In today’s political climate, I do not want this sculpture to be yet another example of public art getting history wrong. With the emergence of the #MeToo and Indivisible Women’s movements, we cannot make historical revisionism a part of the norm.

I have seen at least one photo of a young Ellen Clark with long hair, but that’s not the Ellen Clark Sargent who devoted more than 40 years to the fight for women’s suffrage, and it shouldn’t be the Ellen Clark Sargent who is depicted alongside a mature Aaron Sargent.

Ellen Clark Sargent would not have worn her hair down after her marriage to the senator. Young girls of the period wore long, braided hair. Ellen Clark wore her hair in a bun for the majority of her life. By the time the Sargents moved to Nevada City, she would have been viewed as a mature woman. The dress style depicted in the maquette was worn by young women. During the mid-1800s, and when Ellen Clark moved to Nevada City, mature women wore suit-like dresses.

While the maquette is lovely and I do support Mr. Howd’s artistry, I do not feel the second maquette is representative of important historical facts nor of Ellen Clark’s role surrounding the 19th Amendment. Historians do not support the notion that Sen. Sargent had the ‘will and intention’ of proposing this legislation without the full influence and perhaps insistence of his wife, Ellen Clark Sargent.

I do not believe the spirits of brave suffragettes, nor of the American Chinese, would be too pleased to see Ellen Clark Sargent deferring to her husband. They would view this gesture as historical revisionism.

Jan-Michelle Sawyer, PhD is a retired educator and professional sculptor. She lives in Nevada City.

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