National Women's History Museum & material culture wars
23 May 2014 – Manon Parry
Sonya Michel’s recent post brings the behind-the-scenes issues that have plagued the National Women’s History Museum (NWHM) project for years into public view. In 2012, when the Huffington Post reported “National Women’s History Museum Makes Little Progress in 16 Years,” it listed a catalog of concerns, from the overblown CV of the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) to financial irregularities. In fact, long before this recent crisis, historians were invited to join the original advisory board, only to be dismissed, along with all of their recommendations [see comments].
The consequences have been profound. While CEO Joan Wages may not think historians are integral to the project, the resulting online exhibitions, labelled “amateur, superficial, and inaccurate” by Michel, are certainly disappointing, mixing trite sentimentality (“Profiles in Motherhood”) with shallow celebration (“Daring Dames,” and “Young and Brave: Girls Changing History”). As the Huffington Post article noted, “there appears to be little rhyme or reason to who or what is featured on the museum’s website.” Yet despite the upbeat tone and narrow emphasis on great women and their accomplishments, the exhibitions are still too provocative for the right-wing opponents of women’s history. Since 2008, legislation to grant NWHM permission to build near the National Mall has stalled six times, blocked in Congress by Republican opponents acting on behalf of anti-abortion interests. Michele Bachmann’s charge that the museum will create an “ideological shrine to abortion” is just the latest in this repeated strategy. In 2010, Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Jim DeMint (R-SC), placed a hold on a bill two days after Concerned Women for America requested one, claiming that the museum would “focus on abortion rights.” In response, Wages reassured opponents that reproductive health will never be tackled in the museum. “We cannot afford, literally, to focus on issues that are divisive.”
I know first-hand that the content of the museum’s website owes more to the fears of a political backlash than to the results of decades of groundbreaking historical research.
I completed my PhD in 2010 with Sonya Michel as my dissertation advisor. Interested in employment opportunities at the NWHM, I arranged an informal phone conversation with a staff member at Ralph Appelbaum Associates, then involved as designers for the project. Although this contact acknowledged my relevant training and expertise, she bluntly stated that my research, on family planning media over the twentieth century, made me a liability, given the political sensitivity of the topic. Birth control may be legal in America today, but it is clearly not legitimate. I mention this personal anecdote as full disclosure, not to complain about what happened to me, but to highlight how bad things have become. This is the state of the public history of women in twenty-first century America. Simplified, politically sensitive, and censored.
Despite the weaknesses of shutting out a major aspect of everyday life by excluding reproduction, the point is, of course, that the whole concept of the museum is divisive, as well as every aspect of what it will include. In the decade when I was working as a curator in Washington, DC, colleagues at various institutions, including the Smithsonian and National Park Service as well as universities and private museums, disagreed on the merits and limits of a National Women’s History Museum. Some thought women’s history should be better integrated into existing museums and not treated in a separate space, while others supported a dedicated institution with the prestige of a national identity but worried about the quality of work in a private project. All raised questions about the kinds of histories that would make the cut.
These divided opinions are not a problem but instead create productive discussion–which is vital for public history practice. As recent posts on this blog have argued, gender and sexuality are not optional elements for understanding the past but are instead categories as crucial as race or class. Truly integrating gendered analysis in public history projects means more than adding in a few famous figures or focusing on so-called “women’s issues.” It means fundamentally reconstructing our approach to sources and the stories they reveal. We need to bring these issues out into the open so we can consider how we are incorporating women’s history elsewhere and why there might still be a need for a new museum. We should explore strategies to connect with diverse audiences, bringing women’s history to people who question its value. We must foster discussion and air disagreements so we can demonstrate how historical knowledge is produced and validated. Now that this latest controversy has erupted, we need to ask voters, and their political representatives, if they agree with the CEO of the NWHM that the solution to the reignited culture war is silence.
In the coming months, as guest editor of a special issue of The Public Historian on women’s history, I will be gathering contributions from public historians in the US and around the world for a series of essays investigating the ways in which women’s public history is inflected by the politics of gender in society. I hope this international comparison will allow us to take stock of the serious issues we still face in making women’s history a part of standard public history practice.
Please join the project by sharing your ideas for exhibition reviews, blog posts, and events and extend this invitation to others. You can reach me via email or at the Berkshire Women’s History conference in Toronto this week. On Saturday 24 May from 8-10 am the NWHM will be one of the discussion topics in the session Women’s History Meets Public History. Don’t miss it!
~Manon Parry is Assistant Professor of Public History at the University of Amsterdam and the author of Broadcasting Birth Control: Mass Media and Family Planning (Rutgers University Press, 2013).