August 29, 2019

The Surprising Women's History Behind the National Mall Tidal Basin

  • By: Taneil Ruffin, Storytelling and Historic Preservation Advocacy Intern
Tourists on flat boat in front of Jefferson Memorial under construction in 1941.

photo by: Martha McMillan Roberts, Courtesy Library of Congress

Boaters enjoy the Tidal Basin in 1941.

The National Mall Tidal Basin, an iconic cultural landscape at the southwestern end of Washington, D.C.’s National Mall, is best recognized by the spectacular features that surround it. It’s one of the capital city’s most popular destinations largely because of the thousands of cherry trees that encircle the reservoir. Each spring, the famous trees dazzle large crowds from around the world as pink and white flowers come into peak bloom.

The memorials situated along the Tidal Basin also bring many people to the area. Former United States presidents Thomas Jefferson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt are two of the historic figures commemorated at the Tidal Basin. A monument honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., the most prominent leader of the Civil Rights Movement, is also located along the basin.

Because of the defining roles that Jefferson, Roosevelt, and King played in the history of the United States and the visually striking nature of their memorials along the Tidal Basin, many stories told at and about the site focus on these three men. But some of the most influential people who helped make the Tidal Basin into the incredible landscape it is today were women.

While no official memorial is dedicated to honoring the significant contributions women made at the Tidal Basin and across the United States, this site is ripe for honoring women’s history. For instance, the only statue of a woman at the Tidal Basin depicts Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the most highly regarded and politically engaged first ladies. The statue is tucked away in an alcove in the fourth and final “room” of the 7.5-acre Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. On the wall just behind the statue are acknowledgements of her involvement with the United Nations.

During her 12 years as first lady from 1933 until 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt was an outspoken advocate for all Americans’ civil rights. She remained involved in advocacy and policymaking even after her tenure as first lady ended. Shortly after she left the White House, President Harry Truman appointed Roosevelt to be the first United States delegate to the United Nations in 1945. As a delegate, she was very involved in promoting human rights internationally. She served as the first chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights from 1946 to 1951.

Helen “Nellie” Taft and Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson are two other first ladies whose stories intertwine with the Tidal Basin. Taft and Johnson both played crucial roles in making the Tidal Basin what it is today: a cultural landscape that affords natural beauty and recreational space to D.C. residents and visitors.

Tidal Basin, National Mall, Washington, DC

photo by: Sam Kittner

Taft lobbied to add cherry trees to the Tidal Basin after receiving a letter from Eliza Scidmore, a world traveler and writer who fell in love with the trees while visiting Japan. Taft planted the first cherry trees to take root at the Tidal Basin alongside Viscountess Iwa Chinda, the wife of Japan’s ambassador to the United States, on March 27, 1912.

In addition to enhancing the Tidal Basin’s natural beauty, Taft was instrumental in making the area an ideal space for Washingtonians’ recreation and leisure. A 1921 article in The Washington Post delighted in the many amenities and benefits that the Tidal Basin then offered D.C. residents, stating that “The inspiration of the transformation may be said to be due, in part at least, to a former first lady of the land, Mrs. William Howard Taft.”

Lady Bird Johnson headed projects at the Tidal Basin during her time as first lady from 1963 until 1969. Lady Bird’s efforts were parts of her “Beautification Program.” Although some of the initiative’s critics regarded her focus on beauty as frivolous, Johnson understood beauty to be a powerful part of American culture, politics, and society.

She linked beauty with some of the most pressing political issues of her day, including conservation and urban renewal. Her sophisticated understanding of beauty’s connection to other issues is best captured in her own words: “Though the word beautification makes the concept sound merely cosmetic, it involves much more: clean water, clean air, clean roadsides, safe waste disposal and preservation of valued old landmarks as well as great parks and wilderness areas. To me … beautification means our total concern for the physical and human quality we pass on to our children and the future.”

“Though the word beautification makes the concept sound merely cosmetic, it involves much more: clean water, clean air, clean roadsides, safe waste disposal and preservation of valued old landmarks as well as great parks and wilderness areas. To me … beautification means our total concern for the physical and human quality we pass on to our children and the future.”

Lady Bird Johnson

Like Helen Taft, Johnson accepted cherry trees from Japan to be planted along the Tidal Basin. She even planted one of the 3,800 trees herself with Madame Takeuchi, the wife of Japan’s ambassador to the United States, on April 6, 1965. Johnson’s ideas about beauty also inspired the National Park Service to add a garden with 13,000 tulips at the northeastern edge of the Tidal Basin in 1969. The quarter-acre garden was initially named the Tulip Library but is now called the Floral Library. Landscape architect Darwina Neal designed the garden, making her the first woman to design one of the Tidal Basin’s major landscape features.

Still, these are not the only women whose stories are held within the history of the Tidal Basin. For example, on May 1, 1971, some of the women members of a group called the MayDay Tribe gave impromptu speeches denouncing women’s oppression and outlining the political goals of lesbian women to an audience of about 50,000 people that had gathered at the MayDay Tribe’s temporary campground on the land where the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial is now located.

The women spoke out against sexual violence and sexism perpetrated by their fellow MayDay Tribe activists. Although the MayDay Tribe was in D.C. primarily to protest the Vietnam war, the women’s speeches are remembered as one of the most notable moments of their multi-day protest according to an underground newspaper that covered the events.

While there is no longer any physical evidence of the MayDay Tribe’s campground or the women’s speeches at the Tidal Basin, this story changes our understanding of the Roosevelt Memorial. In addition to reflecting on the immense obstacles Roosevelt and the nation faced during his presidency and admiring how he was able to lead the United States in overcoming many of them, we can remember how, decades after Roosevelt’s death, ordinary women stood in the same area to demand fair treatment from the nation.

As a part of the National Mall, the Tidal Basin is a space for people to reflect on American democracy, freedom, and equality and the variety of people who have contributed to helping the country realize these prized ideals. When we preserve the Tidal Basin, we’re preserving the stories of countless women who have fought for these ideals to become a reality for everyone.

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By: Taneil Ruffin, Storytelling and Historic Preservation Advocacy Intern

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