A Response to the Critics of the National Women's History Museum

tags: National Women’s History Museum, NWHM

Joan Wages is President & CEO of NWHM, Inc., the 501c(3) non-profit dedicated to integrating American women’s history into the national narrative. As a founding member of NWHM, Inc., Ms. Wages has spent nearly twenty years working to build a national women’s history museum in Washington, D.C.

In an article published by HNN on September 29, 2014, Alice Kessler-Harris and Sonya Michel pose the question, “How to Build a Women’s History Museum?” The answer, as the National Women’s History Museum, a 501(c)(3) organization can tell you, is more complicated than it would first appear. Though the 113th Congress includes the largest number of female members of any previous Congress; though women’s issues have never received more prominent and public attention than now; and though historians, women’s groups, and thousands of men and women across the United States agree that it is time for a women’s history museum, obstacles remain. As Kessler-Harris and Michel pointed out, Senators Mike Lee of Utah and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma (not Cochran as was first published) are in opposition.

The National Women’s History Museum (NWHM) is the non-profit organization whose vision is to see women’s history more widely appreciated and integrated into American culture. NWHM’s fundraising goals were incorrectly stated in the article. The organization is not engaged in a capital campaign, which would be undertaken to fund a structure. NWHM’s mission is to educate, inspire, empower, and shape the future by integrating women’s distinctive history into the culture and history of the United States. We do this in a variety of ways tailored to specific audiences. Our public events, produced in partnership with the George Washington University, are in-depth explorations of historical topics. The video footage from these forums is posted onto the Museum’s YouTube channel for future public viewing. New online exhibits are created to meet primarily the needs of middle and high school audiences, who represent the majority of visitors to our website, as well as to satisfy a broad, adult audience.

We also believe that a physical museum would be an important way to better educate about women’s history. Buildings are important. They demonstrate the value that we as a society place on the content, ideas, and objects inside. We hope that such a museum will one day takes its place in our national capital. To this end, we support the establishment of a Congressional Commission that will make recommendations for the governance, fundraising, operations, and site selection for a physical building.

Kessler-Harris and Michel’s article focuses on the relationship between NWHM, scholars, and the proposed Congressional Commission. It is true that the Commission Bill (HR 863/S 398) pending before the Senate does not mandate slots for women’s historians on the Commission; however, it was inaccurate for Kessler-Harris and Michel to state that the legislation was crafted with the intention of excluding scholars. While the organization has offered to fund the Commission--knowing the private support is the only pathway to activating such a group--NWHM played no role in crafting the bill’s language. Rather, the language is highly reflective of that used to constitute past Commissions, including the National Museum of the American Latino and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. As should be noted after reading both bills, history scholars were not mandated for either Commission; although, historians were included in each. All three bills use broad language to describe potential Commissioners’ qualifications. The Women’s History Museum bill calls for Commissioners who possess,

● a demonstrated commitment to the research, study, or promotion of women’s history, art, political or economic status, or culture; and

● expertise in museum administration; expertise in fundraising for nonprofit or cultural institutions;

●experience in the study and teaching of women’s history;

●experience in studying the issue of the representation of women in art, life, history, and culture at the Smithsonian Institution; or

●extensive experience in public or elected service;

●experience in the administration of, or the planning for, the establishment of, museums; or

●experience in the planning, design, or construction of museum facilities.

While it is clear from the bill’s language that women’s historians would be likely candidates for inclusion in this body, mandating the inclusion of a particular group is without recent precedent.

NWHM absolutely recognizes the importance of scholarly input and review of its materials. Women’s historians have been involved with the development, creation, and review of the website’s materials and its public programs from the beginning. A list of scholars who have participated is available on the NWHM website. NWHM continues to involve scholars in the development of programs and materials related to their individual areas of expertise. Moreover, after a lengthy search, a leading women’s history scholar has recently agreed to join NWHM’s Board. The organization looks forward to her contributions to the program and strategic vision.

Building a women’s history museum that reflects the work of dedicated historians and meets the needs of a broad, general public that is hungry for information is important to NWHM as well as many others. Achieving this goal will be the result of a lengthy and complicated process that engages many diverse individuals and groups. We welcome healthy and productive conversations about how to achieve this common goal. We may be reached via our website www.nwhm.org or email info@nwhm.org.  

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