Struggle, strife, and realization
23 May 2017 – James F. Brooks
I write on March 8, 2017, International Women’s Day, unexpectedly fitting for the contents of this May issue of The Public Historian. Our cover, featuring a view of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall in Washington, DC, highlights an extensive review from Tiya A. Miles, who has long rendered her braided histories of African Americans and Native Americans from the vantage of women’s lives. One could extend her praise of the NMAAHC—“a feat of sheer imagination and daring”—to the efforts of countless public history educators and administrators who weave their gendered identity with their daily work. This issue features many of these efforts.
Maeve Casserly and Ciaran O’Neil lead our theme with an exploration of the position of women in public historical contexts in the Republic of Ireland since its founding in 1949. They trace significant progressive transformations in Irish politics over the period, especially the once unimaginable affirmation of marriage equality in the constitutional amendment of 2015. A public history of women that once focused on heroines of the independence movement now leans more toward quotidian struggles for recognition and freedom at the level of family, village, and community, whether in the “traditional” West, within Catholic convent communities, or in cosmopolitan Dublin. In the historical profession itself, Ireland tracks larger patterns toward gender balance, if not equality, in a 50/50 ratio of female to male academic appointments at the entry level today. Public-facing projects such as the founding of the Women’s Museum of Ireland in Dublin in 2012 signal expansion of the message to popular audiences, with focus on women’s lives from brothel madams to revolutionaries to pioneering scientists. Archives devoted to women’s experience, too, grow more robust. Crowdsourced history “harvesting” is contributing to increasingly robust collections on the lives of “ordinary” Irish women. Public architecture such as the new Rosie Hackett Bridge marks recognition of women as workers and members of the labor movement. Yet tensions between public history of women and that of gender and sexual identities, as in so many professional and public locations around the world, remain unresolved and provide a guide star for future work.
Natasha Erlank’s “From Main Reef to Albertina Sisulu Road” shifts our focus to the Global South, where South African public historians strive to include figures such as Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, and Albertina Sisulu in the post-apartheid urban landscape. Street naming and public memorials are but one part of this story; in places such as Freedom Park and in the public school curricula, efforts are underway to blend a critique of the brutality of the apartheid state with celebration of the courageous actions of individuals to imagine a post-apartheid society. Given the multivalent aspect of South Africa’s racial and ethnic history, this proves no easy task—“Voortrekker womanhood” may be celebrated by some for those women’s pioneering spirit but does little to formulate a broadly inclusive women’s history. New projects, such as the Women’s Living Heritage Monument in Lillian Ngoyi Square in Pretoria, face interpretive challenges due to the diverse racialized experience of the very women they intend to recognize. Similar tensions prevail in efforts—born of the early progressive agenda of the ANC—to embrace feminist politics and diversity in sexual orientations, which find themselves struggling against a nationalist backlash toward “unifying” histories that tend to submerge “unruly” women and nonheteronormative gender relations.
Unruliness likewise characterizes the gendered and feminist response to the opening of the Jack the Ripper Museum in London’s East End, treated in Claire Hayward’s review essay, “Waxworks and Wordless Woman.” Born of a proposal to establish “the first women’s museum in the UK” from the vantage of this turbulent working-class neighborhood and oven of radical labor politics, its debut as a monument to “the anonymous murder of women” in 2015 shocked many. The murders of at least five women by an as-yet unidentified assailant in 1888—the same year as the Match Girls Strike—could hardly be considered a commemoration of “the social, political and domestic experience of women from the time of the boom in growth in the East End in the Victorian period through the waves of immigration to the present day.” The opening of the museum provoked mass protest in August 2015, with diverse angry voices pointing out that we “will not end men’s violence against women by celebrating murderous misogyny.” Counterprojects, such as the mobile exhibits of the East End Women’s Museum, quickly emerged as alternative street-level public history, with explicit intersectional interpretive agendas to include “the histories of women of color, working-class women, sex workers, and LGBTQ women.” The April 2016 exhibit We’re Not Finished: Campaigning for Women’s Rights since 1883 stands in vivid contrast to the Jack the Ripper Museum and may gain public recognition beyond its theme due to the dramatic counterpositioning to the offending narrative.
Finally, Charles Lester’s celebration of the racially intersectional and community-driven effort to save and create a public access interpretive experience at the site of King Records in Cincinnati carries forward the theme of street-level activism in the service of public memory. The legendary James Brown himself stimulated this act of historic preservation in 1997, when he found his professional birthplace at 1540 Brewster Avenue in shambles. The dream of a community center and recording studio seemed shattered. In an essay rich with voices, we see a wave of street activists and performers rallying, although often with quite different visions, to save this most “important piece of real estate musically or culturally in the history of popular music.” By 2008 the Cincinnati City Council began an effort to achieve historic designation for the site and erected a historic marker at the address. Countervailing visions for the site, however, made unified efforts difficult, and as of the moment, the site remains in disrepair, with some hope that the city may yet purchase and preserve it. In the end, the story of the struggle to save and interpret the legacy of King Records remains an object lesson in coordinating stakeholders, mediating strife, and struggling to fund so many worthy causes—and the urgent necessity of not surrendering to despair. The history of the National Museum of African American History and Culture is a case in point: in 1915, African American Civil War Union army veterans met in Washington, DC, and formed a committee to memorialize African American achievements in US history. One hundred and one years later, their descendants saw the dream realized.
~ James F. Brooks is editor of The Public Historian and professor of history and anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.