If California legislators succeed, a statue of Sally Ride, astronaut, physicist and educator, will be enshrined in the nation’s Capitol. But first they will have to remove an impediment: the statue of the Rev. Junipero Serra, an 18th-century Catholic priest who established California missions and is about to be canonized by Pope Francis. In the Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection, there is not room for both.
Since 1864, Congress has invited every state to install two statues. In 2000, a new law allowed states to swap an old sculpture for a
new one, which is how California dispensed with Thomas Starr King, a minister and politician, for Ronald Reagan.
A likeness of Dr. Ride in her NASA flight suit could join other notable Americans, including George Washington, Barry Goldwater, Will Rogers, Robert E. Lee, Brigham Young, Helen Keller and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Dr. Ride would be the first acknowledged gay person honored with a statue in the collection.
There is bipartisan support for replacing the statue of Father Serra — which has been on display in the Capitol since 1931 — with one depicting the first American woman in space. The statue of Reagan, installed in 2007, is not eligible; the law requires statues to remain for at least 10 years.
Ricardo Lara, the California state senator who put forward the resolution to memorialize the astronaut, said, “Sally Ride will be the first woman to represent California and the first person to represent the L.G.B.T. community in the Capitol.” Mr. Lara, a Catholic who is openly gay, added, “It’s about modernizing our heroes.”
“Symbols are important, especially for those of us who have traditionally not seen ourselves in figures of influence or power,” Mr. Lara said.
State Senator Ted Gaines, a Republican, voted to support honoring Dr. Ride. “It shouldn’t matter what someone’s sexual orientation is,” Mr. Gaines said in an interview. “Let’s strive for exceptionalism,” he said, adding that Dr. Ride “clearly exemplifies that.”
In 1983, at 32, Dr. Ride became not only the first female American but also the youngest American astronaut to blast into space. Born and raised in California, she earned her Ph.D. in physics from Stanford University and spent her later years promoting math, engineering and science to boys and girls. She did not make her sexual orientation public but did approve that it be disclosed upon her death. She died of pancreatic cancer in July 2012, when she was 61.
“She proved you don’t have to have the right plumbing to have the right stuff, and for that alone she deserves to be in Congress,” said Lynn Sherr, a TV reporter who wrote a biography of Dr. Ride. Statuary Hall has only eight women — though it will have nine when the likeness of Amelia Earhart arrives, courtesy of Kansas — and no state-selected African-Americans. Although a statue of Rosa Parks is in Statuary Hall, it was commissioned by Congress and not by a state.
Barbara Wolanin, the curator of the Architect of the Capitol, who oversees its art, said, “There is concern about the lack of representation of women,” but she added, “This represents the history of our country, our attitudes of the past.”
A statue of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — also commissioned by Congress — is in the Capitol’s rotunda, Dr. Wolanin said.
Last month, Mr. Lara’s resolution received unanimous support from the California Senate’s Governmental Organization Committee. On Thursday, the Senate is scheduled to vote on the resolution, which is expected to pass. Then it would go to the State Assembly. It requires approval from Gov. Jerry Brown.
In Washington, the Congressional Joint Committee on the Library, which oversees the statue collection, must approve the proposed changes. “They have not turned down a proposal,” Dr. Wolanin said.
Some Republicans, concerned about the statue’s costs, were relieved to learn that financing would come from private donations.
The only criticism of the resolution at a recent hearing came from the California Catholic Conference, the church’s public policy organization. Sandra Palacios, associate director for governmental affairs, said Dr. Ride “is worthy of recognition” but called the timing “inappropriate.”
Pope Francis will be in Washington in September to canonize Father Serra. In an interview, Ms. Palacios said, “It’s like celebrating Grandma’s 100th birthday and sending her away after that.”
The Vatican need not worry about the statue of Father Serra’s being replaced any time soon. If approval is granted for the Sally Ride statue, it will take about three years to raise money for and to commission the sculpture.
Ms. Palacios had wanted to postpone a vote until after the pope canonized the priest, but that timeline appears unlikely.
“I don’t necessarily see a removal of Father Serra as a removal,” said State Senator Ben Hueso, a Democrat. “I see it as a rotation.” The Serra sculpture was installed in 1931.
Committee members suggested that Father Serra’s statue could be safely delivered to the San Diego mission or sent on a tour of the state’s missions.
“It seems very appropriate to replace one of the male statues with a woman,” Tam O’Shaughnessy, a science writer and educator who was Dr. Ride’s partner for 27 years, said. “It’s time for California to have more diverse representation.”