How would I celebrate Women’s History Month? By building a museum

How would I celebrate Women’s History Month? By building a museum

The women were determined, motivated, unwavering. And they descended on Washington in droves. Carrying posters, some in costume, they marched—for the equality they had yet to achieve, and the progress they sought to protect. Leaving spouses and children behind, they came to Washington to place their demands at the feet of a newly elected President—one who was ideologically distanced from their movement.

Eerily familiar as it sounds, the year wasn’t 2017, but a full century before. It was 1913. Instead of by bus, the women came by wagon, instead of metro, by horseback.

Less than six weeks after the historic women’s marches in Washington, New York City, Chicago and elsewhere, our most recent milestone for women in American history remain top of mind and a topic of conversation from cocktail parties to classrooms all across the country. The question is, how long before the events of Jan. 21 become as faded or forgotten as the events of March 3, 1913?

The American story is replete with moments like these, moments in which women changed the trajectory of our lives and of our democracy as suffragettes, as scientists, as entrepreneurs, and as activists. While there is no shortage of exceptional women in our past and in our present, what has been missing is a concerted effort to commemorate their achievements as an integral part of our American narrative. 

Even as we face the reality that women are still struggling to claim their right to full equality, there is another challenge we must face in memorializing and educating future generations on what women have already accomplished. Put simply, women have been left out of the telling of our history.

One need look no further than the typical educational textbook to see—or not see—the history that is missing. Only 15 percent of the figures in American history textbooks are of women, and most are in the sidebars. Of the 217 statues in the U.S. Capitol, a mere 13 are of women—roughly 5 percent.  And yet women make up, and have always made up, at least half the population. 

And today, we may be on the cusp of change. There is a hunger not seen before to tell the story that has not been told.

For more than twenty years, a group of women, and men, has been working to change this reality, through a focused effort to work with Congress to create a National Women’s History Museum building on the National Mall in Washington. Today, this movement is having a moment.

Indeed, on the heels of the 2016 election and the women’s march on Washington, the National Women’s History Museum has received some of the largest surges in donations in its twenty-year history. This comes weeks after a Congressional Commission presented its recommendations to Congress. Chief among its recommendations was that a national women’s history museum should be built in a prominent location on the National Mall.

We are at a time of great momentum, and now is the moment to build on it. While Congress works to tackle high priority issues, some of them contentious, the need to celebrate and commemorate women’s history is an issue on which both parties can agree. Action can be taken now and on a bipartisan basis.  We urge Congress to write the legislation that will create the museum that has been missing on the National Mall for more than a century. The private sector, as part of its increasing focus on diversity and inclusion in the workplace, should continue to provide the support for the building’s establishment.

There is a lot of work ahead of us to create a permanent home for women’s stories in Washington. But until we tell the story of American women’s contributions to history, our telling of American history will remain half-finished, and our understanding of who we are as a country only half-complete.   

Joan Wages is President and CEO of the National Women’s History Museum.