How to Build a Women’s History Museum

tags: womens history

Alice Kessler-Harris is the R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of History at Columbia University; Sonya Michel is a professor of history at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Suffragists picketing the White House

Related Link:  A Response to the Critics of the National Women's History Museum By Joan Wages

The 113th Congress boasts an unprecedented number of female members--20 in the Senate and 82 in the House--and all of them are seeking to make their mark on history by passing a bill to begin planning for a women's history museum in the nation’s capital. The House version of the legislation, which would establish a federal commission to look into the feasibility of the project, passed with an overwhelming bi-partisan majority in early May, but the companion bill is now stuck in the Senate, where two Republican budget hawks—Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Mike Lee of Utah—have placed a hold on it. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), one of the House bill’s two sponsors, is so determined to get the legislation through Congress this session that she even got the New York City Council to pass a resolution supporting it. Much to Maloney’s chagrin, however, Lee and Cochran still refuse to budge.

Surprisingly, many women’s historians, women’s studies scholars, museum professionals, and feminist activists are also opposing the bill--but for very different reasons from those stated by Lee and Coburn. Unlike them, these opponents actually support the idea of creating a women’s history museum in Washington, DC, and even think it should have federal funding, like all the other museums on the Mall. What they object to is how the current legislation developed, and where a commission might take women’s history.

Though barely half a century old, the field of women’s history has emerged as one of the key specialties in the historical profession. Women’s historians mount regular scholarly conferences and publish leading journals. The field boasts practitioners who have reached the highest ranks of scholarly distinction as professors in top-flight institutions and presidents of scholarly societies. Women’s history is a recognized, an essential, part of the American past, a field that every university worth its salt needs to offer and that more and more high school curricula now include.

The present bills were drafted at the behest, and with the assistance, of a non-profit called the National Women’s History Museum (NWHM), which has been around since 1996 and has long had a troubled relationship with many of the leading architects of women’s history. The group of civic-minded women who started the organization initially included women’s historians in their efforts to launch the project. But politics soon intervened. The historians were let go when NWHM decided to focus on finding a piece of federal land as a building site.

In 2011, the non-profit again reached out to women’s historians, holding a series of regional meetings to gather their views. Those who attended were excited to hear about the prospect of a museum and eagerly agreed to serve as voluntary advisors. But as they watched NWHM in action, they quickly became disillusioned. The museum’s website and publications tended to focus on the “contributions” of individual women, mostly white and middle-class, offering a parade of famous “firsts.” This superficial approach bore little resemblance to the way professionals understand women’s history—as a complex web woven by movements as well as individuals, divided as well as united across racial, class, religious and regional lines, and facing many obstacles as well as celebrating triumphs.

Aware that the museum did not have any professional historians on staff, the scholars did what they could to try to improve NWHM’s presentation of women's history but were repeatedly rebuffed. They were refused even one seat on the museum’s board and only rarely consulted about substantive issues. Finally, in March 2014, those who had been asked to advise were summarily dismissed.

NWHM’s disregard for historians is reflected in the legislation they helped to craft. It fails to guarantee spots on the commission for women’s historians but instead strengthens a particular organization—NWHM--by designating it for consideration as a key fundraiser. The organization’s record of fundraising is hardly reassuring. It has taken 18 years to raise $13 million, most of which has gone into keeping the organization afloat. NWHM lacks a capital fund or building reserve, yet it raises funds expressly for the purpose of constructing a bricks-and-mortar museum.

Shortcomings in the legislation led the American Historical Association and the National Historical Coalition, which represents some 60 organizations, to join feminist scholars and museum professionals from across the country in an effort to amend the House bill. They failed there, but are now requesting that the bill before the Senate be appropriately amended.

All of these professionals and organizations passionately support the idea of a women’s history museum. But they also want to ensure that the museum that emerges will do justice to the history of diverse generations of women who have participated in making ours a better and more inclusive country by identifying and challenging systematic forms of discrimination. There is no better way to guarantee that outcome than to mandate the inclusion of scholarly experts on the commission. This is one place where we should all raise our voices demanding the inclusion of historians, as advisors, consultants, and experts. American women—indeed, all Americans--deserve nothing less.

comments powered by Disqus