The Old Age of Adelaide Johnson (1847–1955)

Adelaide Johnson was an American sculptor whose life was dedicated to women’s liberation.

In 1878 she changed her name from Sarah to Adelaide, a name she thought was more dramatic. She left her family farm in Illinois and moved to Chicago where she supported herself through her art.

In 1882, she slipped down an unguarded elevator shaft and was badly injured, but she fought for compensation and was eventually awarded a decent sum. She decided to use this money to travel to Europe to study painting and sculpture. She chose Dresden first, before moving onto Rome, where she kept a studio until 1920.

In 1896 she married a man eleven years younger than her, a British businessman named Frederick Jenkins. They were wed by a woman minister. After twelve years she divorced him.

Hers is the famous sculpture that stands in the rotunda of the United States Capitol: sculpted into a single block of marble are the busts of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott. She also sculpted many other feminist leaders of her day, including Isabell Beecher Hooker, Helen Densmore, and Ellen Hardin Walworth. But it was her marble portraits of Anthony (now at the Metropolitan museum in New York) that became most famous.

“…her aim being to “build a marble pantheon” of all the feminist leaders, so that what she called “this great idea of women’s freedom” would outlast flesh and catch the imagination of the world through art. ” (Robin Morgan, Anatomy of Freedom)

She then married the Englishman Alexander Jenkins, who changed his name to hers–and she, who had always designed her own clothing, designed their joint wedding garb. The groom was in white, the bride in black.

Now listen to this:

In 1939, when she was ninety-two, she did something that would ensure her a place in feminist history.

She refused to grow old gracefully into poverty as so many women do. Poverty in old age is a woman’ problem. Even in countries such as Japan, where age is respected, the suicide rate is much higher among women, proving that the Confucian Oriental respect towards the elderly is a privilege reserved only for men. Society does not pay women enough for the work they do, and rewards men too much for theirs. Adelaide Johnson understood this well.

The government owed her money in payment for some sculptures and they wouldn’t shell out. So at ninety-two she faced eviction from her home after her mortgage had been foreclosed and her house put up for auction without her permission:

“What she called “swivel-chair art experts” at Washington art galleries, including the Mellon, wouldn’t purchase her work, on the grounds that no-one now would be interested in her subject matter. Furthermore, she said, “They told me that they planned to buy the work of no artist who hadn’t already been dead for fourty years. I might as well be dead.” She was impoverished and about to become homeless.

So she alerted the press, and began smashing her marbles. While reporters stood by astonished, the five-foot tall woman took her hammer to the busts of Anthony and of Stanton (and of Lincoln and Logan). She’s quoted as having said, “I’ll destroy it all–the work that Rockfeller’s money can’t buy– my work, the life of clay, the purgatory of the plaster, and the paradise of the marble. The story of these marbles parallels the movement itself. I am sick of the temporary. I am tired of uncertainty.”

It worked. Within an hour, various nervous congressmen appeared, trying to soothe Johnson, proffering personal checks of fifty dollars here, a hundred dollars there, reminding her that the sun was shining outside and promising that “help would come.” To one such gentlemen, she snapped:

 “I know the sun is shining outside. I can see. Don’t patronize me. What do you know about anything? You’re not old, you’re not a woman, and you’re not an artist”  (Robin Morgan, Anatomy of Freedom)

Congress did not shell out in the end. But help did come. Individual spontaneous donors–women, of course– sent in money from all over the country where the stories on Johnson had run in the newspapers. Her home was made secure. Galleries suddenly found her art “commercial.”

“For the remaining years of her life she was feted and honoured–at the White House, at museum openings, at special exhibitions of her work. She found all this, she said, “highly amusing”.”(Robin MOrgan)

She lived until she was 108.

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13 thoughts on “The Old Age of Adelaide Johnson (1847–1955)

  1. Wow, such a woman! I want to be her when I grow up!
    I do love reading these Herstories, so inspiring.

    The younger ones probably would not get the significance of the groom wearing white and the bride black, quite outrageous to convention (as well as the 2nd husband name change to hers). Even when John Lennon and Yoko Ono were married, they wore matching white trouser suits, and that was regarded as highly unusual in its day.

    108, and in the early 20thC, amazing. Possibly many women would live longer than they do, because of the poverty of old age. Whereas, I think more males would die even younger if not for their hogging resources.

    Thanks for the Herstory CBL, it brightened my day, xxx

  2. Oh, lovely. 🙂

    To be completely honest, my mind flew immediately to Dominique in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead which was required reading in my last year at *legally required* school.

    I guess Rand was more prone than I thought to ripping off *revolutionary* acts, even filthy feminist acts, to further the pre-postmodern cause?

  3. Adelaide Johnson, a woman who never ever capitulated to male domination! Notice too the well-heeled men in Congress reneged on their promises made to Adelaide Johnson. A well known ploy men in power always enact when they become frightened of women who don’t submit to male pretensions.

    Thank you Cherry Blossom for bringing another women back into herstory because his tory never ever acknowledges such women exist.

  4. This woman sounds AWESOME. I, too, intend on being a bad-ass old woman! If I make it that long… :/

    When do we start our woman-only island co-operative retirement sanctuary? I am ready now.

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