Women’s museum seeks national space (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 3/30/2011)
By Monica Haynes
Women make up more than half of this country’s population, but you’d never know it from reading history books.
“In today’s history textbooks, only one out of 10 figures is of a woman. If you look at our national parks, less than 5 percent of the statues are women,” says Joan Wages, National Women’s History Museum president & CEO.
“Women are being left out of the telling of our national story and that’s what we have to change.”
The mission of the National Women’s History Museum, established in 1996, is to spread the word about how women have shaped American society and culture. The museum has only an online presence, but it is pushing to have a building on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It would be the first museum in the country dedicated solely to women’s history.
Today, supporters of the museum will rally in Washington as U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, announce the reintroduction of legislation to purchase a site for the museum at 12th Street and Independence Avenue, S.W.
In October 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 1700, the first step in allowing the purchase of federal land for a permanent women’s history museum. That same month, Sen. Collins introduced the corresponding bill, S. 2129, in the Senate. However, time ran out in that congressional session before a Senate vote could be taken.
“Even in this earmark-unfriendly atmosphere, it’s time for funding to be approved for this indispensable and long-awaited permanent home to recognize women’s contributions to the world,” said Sen. Collins in a statement.
Those who can’t make it to Washington can sign a petition on the museum website, www.nwhm.org, urging Congress to pass the legislation. Ms. Wages also encourages museum supporters to write and/or email their representatives in the House and Senate.
In the meantime, the museum website offers information regarding the achievements and impact of women throughout history. An online exhibit, “Clandestine Women: Spies in American History,” describes the exploits of spies from the American Revolution to the Cold War. In that exhibit, visitors learn that Anna “Nancy” Smith Strong was a member of the Culper Spy Ring during the Revolution and used her laundry on the clothesline to secretly signal fellow operatives. This exhibit also mentions Linda Barrington Darragh, who lived in Philadelphia during its occupation by the British in 1777. She learned of a planned surprise attack and was able to get word to Gen. George Washington.
Although 35 women have run for U.S. President, the online exhibit “First But Not the Last: Women Who Ran for President” highlights the campaigns of just 12 of them, including Shirley Chisholm, Lenora Fulani, Elizabeth Dole, Carol Mosley Braun and Hilary Clinton.
One of the most intriguing campaigns was that of the first, Victoria Claflin Woodhull, who announced her run on April 2, 1870. When the presidential election took place two years later, Ms. Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, were in jail for running a story in their newspaper about an adulterous affair between a prominent minister, Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, and Elizabeth Tilton, a leader of the women’s movement. Even though the story was true, the sisters were indicted on libel and obscenity charges, which were later dropped.
Some of the other online exhibits are: “Women in Early Film,” “Chinese American Women: A History of Resilience and Resistance,” “Partners in Winning the War: Women in WWII,” “This Isn’t Right: Women Reform Leaders from 1857-1952,” “Women of Jamestown,” “Women in the Olympics,” “Young and Brave: Girls Changing History,” “Claiming Their Citizenship: African-American Women from 1624 to 2009″ and “Women with a Deadline: Female Printers, Publishers, and Journalists.”
“Having a National Women’s History Museum is incredibly important to men and women,” said Leslie Stiles, former executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission for Women. “It educates and instills much needed pride, especially in our young people as to the role women have played in forging this nation.
“[Women] have been innovators and pathfinders, risking their lives to break down barriers so we may enjoy the freedoms we have today.”
Ms. Stiles was the force behind a book published by the commission in 2006 titled “Voices: African American and Latina Women in Pennsylvania Share Their Stories of Success” and a subsequent exhibition of the same name. The book and the exhibit, like the National Women’s History Museum, aim to show young women what women who’ve come before them have accomplished. The exhibit is at the August Wilson Center now through June 18.
“Our hope is that by learning about their history, young girls will have greater respect for themselves and greater esteem, and young boys will learn about what women have done and have greater respect,” Ms. Wages said.
“Girls are essentially standing on historical quicksand right now because they don’t know about what women have done before. … Men and young boys have been given that through history and now it’s time for girls to be given that.”