Women’s museum in D.C. again pushed

Women’s museum in D.C. again pushed (The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, 3/31/2011)


Stefanie Scarlett | The Journal Gazette

“Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

That now famous quote (by historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich) is affixed to Christine Erickson’s office door at IPFW, where she is an associate history professor. Last year, Erickson says, someone scribbled a few choice words on the bumper sticker: “That’s because women didn’t do anything important.” Perhaps the proposed National Women’s History Museum is needed now more than ever. On Wednesday, a bill that would allow the museum’s construction near the National Mall was introduced in Congress for the fourth time since 2005. “It has been a long road,” says Joan Wages, the museum’s president and CEO. “It’s just what it takes to get 530 members of Congress to agree. It takes a long period of time to make one’s mark in Washington and convince them that you’re serious about your project,” she says.

The goal is to buy the federal land at fair market value, raise private funds and build the museum, without any taxpayer expense. If the bill passes and President Obama signs it, which Wages expects he would do, the museum could open within seven years. Its proposed location, in the heart of the nation’s cultural district, makes sense because “that’s where the action is,” Erickson says. “Washington, D.C., is a city of symbols. People around the world look to (it) as a beacon. By having a National Women’s History Museum here, it will say, ‘This nation honors our women.’ That’s the message we want to send,” Wages says.

For now, the museum exists only online at www.nwhm.org. One exhibit is dedicated to women who ran for president; another is about those in state legislatures. But the physical museum, once built, will tell the story of women’s contributions in other areas, such as science, education and the arts. Wages expects it will feature a general timeline and the suffrage struggle. “I anticipate a major exhibit on women winning the vote, since there is no such exhibit in Washington,” Wages says.

Janet Badia, director of the women’s studies program at IPFW, hopes the museum won’t just highlight the obvious historical figures but also “will work to challenge our very notions of what kinds of contributions to history matter,” she says. That means making room to explain some of the “ordinary” milestones, along with the extraordinary achievements. “The cultural and legal changes the feminists of the 1960s and ’70s brought about – like women’s access to such mundane things as birth control and a credit card or home mortgage – have profoundly changed not just women’s lives, but the very shape of our country,” Badia says.

And for those who don’t know much about history, such as Erickson’s anonymous bumper-sticker editor, she’s happy to explain why a major female-centric museum is necessary. “As anyone who’s ventured to the museums of Washington, D.C., can attest, women’s history is shared but often only at the margins,” Badia says. “… It’s frequently shadowed by the stories told about war, science and technology innovations, and the ‘founding fathers.’

“I can’t think of a better place, or way, to call attention to women’s achievements, than through a museum in the heart of some of the very best museums in the country.” Erickson agrees.

“While it is true that women are being included and recognized in many museums, (one) devoted to women’s history can only add to the historical narrative. Moreover, the way we conceptualize history also changes when we consider women’s experiences. Settling the frontier, for example, was experienced differently by women than by men,” Erickson says.

The museum could be a home for so many of those artifacts of women’s history that often get relegated to the archive or “buried in the crypt, or whatever,” and rarely see the light of day after that, Wages says. A perfect example is the statute of three suffrage leaders – Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott – that now sits in the U.S. Capitol rotunda. It was moved there from the basement in 1997, after a long debate with Congress and only after the National Women’s History Museum group offered to pay for the move, Wages says. Besides reclaiming that hidden “herstory,” she also wants the museum to help tell our national story and create “a legacy for the girls of tomorrow.”

Wages believes that the bill’s introduction so early in the session is a good sign, although she warns that it’s unclear where it will fall on the new leadership’s agenda. She also says that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, plans to have a women’s restroom built adjacent to the House floor. “We hope that’s a sign that he may be somewhat sympathetic. I don’t know the relevance there,” she says, laughing.

The National Women’s History Museum Act would require the museum group to buy the federal land within three years and start building within five years after the bill is signed into law. “Hope springs eternal. I hope to live to see it,” Wages says. But she knows her history: “It took the suffrage leaders 72 years to get us the vote.”

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