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Bid to name R.I. bridge for woman hits a bump

A statue of religious dissident Anne Hutchinson in Boston. A statue of religious dissident Anne Hutchinson in Boston. (CHARLES KRUPA/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

PROVIDENCE -- A female lawmaker in Rhode Island is demanding her colleagues name a bridge for an outspoken woman who helped found the state, a gesture resisted in a House chamber so dominated by men it lacked a women's bathroom until last month.

Lawmakers here routinely crank out honorifics with little fanfare, let alone debate. Not this time.

Critics of Representative Amy Rice have rewritten her bill and attempted to scuttle it over a plan to name a new bridge spanning the Sakonnet River for Anne Hutchinson, a religious dissident who led hundreds of followers to Rhode Island in 1638 after Puritan zealots banished her from Boston.

"This bill would have passed if it weren't for gender politics," fumes Rice, one of 15 women in the House of Representatives. "For women, we've come a long way . . . but apparently not far enough."

Boston Puritans persecuted Hutchinson and Roger Williams, both religious leaders who founded separate settlements which coalesced into modern-day Rhode Island. Williams tends to get the glory, probably because he founded the Baptist church in America and advocated for the separation of church and state.

Williams's name adorns a university, a national memorial, a Providence medical center and the state's only accredited zoo. By comparison, Hutchinson was the namesake for a Portsmouth school -- until it became a senior center. Her name also graces a Portsmouth town park, although Rice said few can find it.

Hutchinson feuded with the leading Puritan men of her day. She believed that outward signs of piety such as church attendance, Bible reading, and prayer didn't reliably predict whether a person merited salvation. Only the human heart mattered, and Hutchinson claimed to be a uniquely good judge.

Republicans faulted Rice last year for trying to name a landmark that isn't in her district. Of course, it isn't in the district of Representative John Loughlin of Tiverton, but that didn't stop the Republican from amending Rice's bill to designate the disputed span as the "Anne Hutchinson/Robert Gray Bridge."

The latter part of that mouthful refers to Captain Robert Gray, a Revolutionary Wary privateer from Tiverton. He was the first American to circumnavigate the globe, discovered the Columbia River in modern-day Oregon and, according to history books, razed an American Indian village of some 200 dwellings.