A women’s history museum without women’s historians
12 May 2014 – Sonya Michel
On May 7, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill authorizing the creation of a commission to explore the feasibility of establishing a women’s history museum on the National Mall. Yet many women’s historians and museum professionals are not celebrating. Why not? Because this bill (H.R. 863) carves out a special role for the National Women’s History Museum, Inc. (NWHM), a non-profit, non-professional organization that has been lobbying for this project for more than 16 years, but does not guarantee a place at the table for either professional historians or museum experts.
This means that if the legislation goes on to become law, the commission it creates will likely be populated by political appointees who, however well-meaning, have little or no grasp of women’s history. They, in turn, will probably give NWHM the task of raising the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to construct the museum and keep it running. It is NWHM’s approach to fundraising—and to women’s history more generally—that troubles women’s historians. Instead of drawing on the fruits of more than 50 years of scholarly research to create a comprehensive, well-informed, world-class museum, NWHM’s goal seems to be creating (with all due respect to Cooperstown) a “Women’s Hall of Fame.” This is not the kind of institution that women’s historians, who have sacrificed so much to build the field, have in mind.
Women’s historians who have been affiliated with the NWHM have experienced its approach first-hand. In early 2011, I, along with about two dozen other women’s historians from across the country, joined a scholars advisory council (SAC) at the invitation of Joan Wages, NWHM’s President and CEO. We assumed that we would help the NWHM staff (none of whom are historians) develop an overall vision for the museum. Until it existed as a bricks-and-mortar reality, we also offered to help with its existing online presence by proposing ideas for exhibits and vetting content, as well as reviewing print publications.
Despite the fact that we were willing to provide our services gratis, the museum contacted us only sporadically, with the result that its online exhibits were uneven in quality—often inaccurate and generally unprofessional, their approach to diversity mere tokenism. Instead of asking questions about how race, class, sexual orientation, religion, region, and political ideology as well as gender affected women’s (and men’s) experience, the spotlight usually fell on famous white middle-class women and their legislative and professional achievements—a parade of female firsts. And instead of examining some of the difficult issues that women have faced, such as reproductive rights, domestic violence, or equal pay, the museum focused mainly on women’s “contributions” to American society.
NWHM’s strategy seems to be avoiding controversy at any cost—even if it entails presenting a whitewashed, partial version of women’s history. To be sure, the project has its detractors; indeed, the exchange that preceded the House vote provided a glimpse of what a women’s history museum is up against. Michele Bachmann, a conservative Republican from Minnesota, charged, “Ultimately, this museum that will be built on the National Mall, on federal land, will enshrine the radical feminist movement that stands against the pro-life movement, the pro-family movement, and pro-traditional marriage movement.”
Bachmann and others on the right frequently conflate the future museum with the NWHM. For example, Penny Nance, president and CEO of Concerned Women for America, told Fox News that the reason she opposed the museum was that the NWHM’s board was “overwhelmingly pro-abortion and leftist in their leanings” and has claimed that the museum will certainly be a “shrine to abortion.” And Daniel Horowitz, on the blog Redstate, asserted, “One glance at the website of the NWHM makes it clear that this particular outfit will be used as a conduit to promote general liberal causes like most other feminist ‘women’s’organizations.”
Joan Wages has responded to criticism with a statement on the NWHM’s home page: “There will always be debate across the political spectrum about the Museum’s content…. Discussions at this stage are simply premature.”
Like other women’s historians, I think that there is a better way to respond to such charges: head-on, explaining all sides. Instead of suppressing the subject of, say, abortion rights, a women’s history museum could provide context for understanding the debates surrounding abortion’s contentious history. Rather than deny the existence of the gender wage gap, a women’s history museum could serve its audience well by explaining how such a gap developed.
Just such an the approach is being taken by Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, currently under construction on the mall. That museum will include exhibits such as the guard tower from the infamous Angola Prison in Louisiana, where thousands of African Americans have been incarcerated over the years. While this artifact evokes a difficult phase in African American—and American—history, Bunch thinks it is crucial to display it. According to the Washington Post, Bunch sees broaching the painful history of African American incarceration as a way to present an “unvarnished truth that navigates the tension between what Americans want to see in a museum and what they need to know.”
Indeed, oppression and struggles to overcome it lie at the heart of American history—and of American women’s history no less than any other field. Those who seek to lead the effort to create a national women’s history museum must be willing to take on the challenges of presenting that history in all of its complexity and contradictoriness. Unfortunately, the performance of the NWHM to date suggests that it is not up to the task. If its staff truly wants to see a museum become a reality, they must be willing to step up to the criticisms by presenting a full-throated account of women’s history. If not, they should step aside and allow the commission, if approved, to create an organization de novo, drawing on the hundreds of well-qualified professionals who are eager to join the project.
For this reason, nearly 500 historians and other professionals have signed a petition requesting that the Senate improve its bill by eliminating a role for the NWHM and ensuring that women’s historians and museum professionals participate in the process from the outset (public historians are welcome to sign). With their unprecedented numbers, the women of the Senate can use their strength to make this happen.
~ Sonya Michel is Professor of History at University of Maryland, College Park.