The Politics of Representation: The Fight for the Smithsonian Women’s History MuseumHistorians in the News
tags: Museum, Smithsonian Institution, womens history
Famously, a young Paul Revere got on a horse in 1775 in order to warn the colonial militia that the British were coming. However, a girl who was even younger than Revere got on her horse to do the exact same thing in 1777, riding 40 miles, twice as far as Paul Revere, on roads she did not know in order to do so. Her name was Sybil Ludington, “…and nobody knows that story—nobody knows about her, and she should be known,” said Jane Abraham, the chair of the American Museum of Women’s History Congressional Commission, in an interview with The Politic. Why is Paul Revere a household name, but Sybil Ludington is not?
Women are consistently underrepresented in history. In elementary school, history textbooks typically have three times as many men as women, five times as many for middle school, and six times as many for high school. When women are depicted, they are generally portrayed doing household jobs, in stereotypically “feminine” roles. They are left out of the narrative of political and economic decisions, and women’s roles are often downplayed, leading to the marginalization of women in historical education.
Abraham took on this daunting challenge by chairing a Congressional Commission charged with studying the feasibility of establishing a national museum focused on women’s history and writing their findings in a report. The Commission had two years to produce this report with no funding. Additionally, the Commission included people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and political affiliations while requiring an unanimous vote on all issues published within the report. The members had to overcome their differences in order to focus on one important issue: the United States currently has no museums dedicated to women’s history of any kind.
The fight began in 1995 with a nonprofit called the National Women’s History Museum (NWHM). Karen Staser established the organization to advocate for a museum focused on the role that women have played throughout history, due to the unequal gender representation in traditional books and museums. Still, in 2020, there is no brick and mortar NWHM; it exists only virtually. As such, the NWHM stepped up to fund the Commission.
Creating a new museum is no simple feat. “After many years of having different pieces of legislation come before them [Congress], sometimes that legislation went nowhere. Sometimes it was passed in the House but not in the Senate or vice versa,” said Abraham. The National Museum of African American History and Culture took 28 years in total to create—15 years to pass the bill and 13 to build. It cost $540 million dollars, half funded by the government and half funded by the private sector. No one expected the creation of a women’s history museum to be easy.
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