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Thank the Women for the Cherry Trees

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If you venture across the National Mall, you will find precious few memorials to women. At one end, Abraham Lincoln's stoic face scans the two-mile-long lawn. In the middle is the monument to George Washington. There are grand marble testaments to Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King, and the heroes that have defended our country.

But there is one incredibly popular feature of the Mall -- one more visited than the relatively recent and important Vietnam's Women Memorial -- that, in fact, is a monument to women, although nobody knows it.

And since this is Women's History Month, it's fitting that this honor be revealed.

Everybody who lives in Washington, and millions who come each year, knows that March is when the Cherry Blossoms bloom around the Tidal Basin and the Cherry Blossom Festival commences.

It's one of the most iconic images of Washington, D.C.: the blossoming Cherry Trees.

What's not well known is the prominent role a few determined women played in bringing these trees to Washington, and preserving them where they now stand.

The story begins in 1885, when Eliza Ruhama Scidmore returned from a visit to Japan where she had been taken by the beauty of the spring flowering Japanese Cherry Trees. Wanting to transport her experience and beautify Washington, she approached the Army Superintendent, who at the time had jurisdiction over the National Mall, asking that they bring the flowering trees to the Potomac.

The superintendent ignored her entreaty, as did subsequent authorities to whom Mrs. Scidmore pitched the idea.

Fast forward to 1909, when Scidmore, still trying to bring her beloved Cherry Trees to Washington, pitched her idea to First Lady Helen Taft. Scidmore found a compatriot in Helen Taft who loved the idea and "promised the trees."

But it would take another three years before Mrs. Taft and the wife of the Japanese Ambassador, Viscountess Chinda, would plant the first two on the northern bank of the Tidal Basin. Over time, thousands of trees donated by the Japanese government and supplemented by the National Park Service would be planted there, along with other scenic areas on the National Mall.

At the time, there was no Jefferson Memorial. But the start of its construction in 1938 would provide women another opportunity to make history.

When Eleanor Patterson, who owned and edited the Washington Times-Herald, heard that the Jefferson Memorial was to be sited on the Tidal Basin, she published articles decrying the decision -- since it would mean removing so many of the beloved trees.

Spurred by Patterson, 50 women later marched on the White House with a petition, and chained themselves together to protest the trees' removal, in what was called the Cherry Tree Rebellion. The result was a compromise, with more trees planted on the south side of the Tidal Basin to replace those lost to construction.

Over the years, other features have been added to the area, including a 360-year-old Japanese Stone Lantern, which was donated by Japan in 1954. The lantern lighting serves as the historic centerpiece of the city's two-week Cherry Blossom Festival and a reminder of the vital role the Japanese government played in making the Cherry Blossoms such an integral part of the National Mall's landscape.

Working with the Park Service, the Trust for the National Mall, with funds from the Japanese Commerce Association of Washington and its Foundation, built a new plaza last summer to better showcase this magnificent lantern and add to the accessibility and the sustainability of the area, which also includes dozens of Cherry Blossom trees.

As time went on, the turmoil surrounding these trees and the women who made it happen has been forgotten. But it's a history well worth reviving.

After all, the women who made our stunning groves of Cherry Blossoms possible represent the very values the National Mall celebrates - freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and the ability of individuals to band together to make a difference. Their spirit lives on in a new generation of women committed to improving this treasured park -- the Trust for the National Mall's Women's Leadership Committee.

And that, just like the Cherry Trees in spring, is a beautiful thing.