Telling real women's stories at historic sites
06 February 2013 – Molly Brookfield
I was pleased to see a feature in a recent NCPH email update informing readers that the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites had made recommendations for how to involve more women’s stories at American historic sites. The NCWHS joined the Secretary of the Interior in arguing that our parks and historic sites should “reflect the significance of women and girls being half of our U.S. population.” One of the ways to achieve this, NCWHS suggests, is to base interpretation on “specific details of work, economics, race and ethnicity, religion, class, sexuality, time, place and legal status.”
For example, one living history farm I visited recently was home to two sisters who took over the management of the farm for almost ten years after their father’s death. However, at the time of my visit the interpretation at the site was set in the decade before their takeover. Visitors have little chance to learn about the powerful roles these women assumed—or their devotion to the intriguingly named “cult of single blessedness”—unless they ask the right leading questions. Instead, the farm shows men and women inhabiting traditional gender roles: women perform domestic tasks in the home while visitors encounter men performing manual labor in the fields or the barns. Indeed, this particular site has come under scrutiny from others besides myself for its inflexible depiction of these “separate spheres” of labor. One way to fix this problem would be to focus on the stories of the women who lived on the farm rather than generic depictions of female domesticity.
I have encountered similar problems at historic sites that feature provocative, even feminist, interpretation. I visited a historic house a few years ago that held special tours about women’s sexuality and health during the Victorian era. The tour discussed everything from masturbation to abortion to anorexia, and the largely female tour group thoroughly enjoyed it. However, once again this interpretation was not specific in its content. It often relied on visitors’ pre-conceived notions of Victorian life and made generalizations about the horrors of Victorian dress and the repression of Victorian women’s sexuality. There was little hint that Victorian women could live autonomous, fulfilling lives, despite the fact that the site has real life examples in the form of two sisters who, like their counterparts at the living history farm, never married and went on to manage their father’s house after his death, finally donating it to the local historical society. Furthermore, the family employed an African-American domestic servant who is depicted in family photographs from the period; but though her story could provide a starting point for discussing race and class in Victorian America, she received only a passing mention on the several tours I joined.
As the NCWHS’ report suggests, representation of women at historic sites should be “grounded in specific details.” I see missed opportunities at the sites that I have visited over the years, sites that were once home to women who have little presence in the current interpretation. Of course, there are also many examples of organizations that tell “specific” women’s history, such as the Women’s Rights National Historic Park. There are women’s historic sites—like the Emily Dickinson Museum—where the primary aim has always been to tell the life story of a real woman from the past. I have personally been impressed with the James J. Hill House: though like many historic sites it was established to preserve the memory of a wealthy white man, the site has built some of its interpretation on the papers and oral histories left behind by servants. The site’s popular Christmas tour depicts mostly female servants who once worked for the family and their stories of life in domestic service make for an engaging program that illustrates some of the diversity of women’s experience in the nineteenth century.
Still, there is much work to be done, particularly at historic sites that were not initially intended to tell women’s stories. It seems about time for the NCWHS to remind us that the most intriguing, meaningful, and indeed important stories one can tell at a historic site are the stories of actual people. By telling the stories of real, complicated, contradictory individuals, historic sites can give visitors an understanding of the richness and diversity of life in the past and thus combat the generalizations and stereotypes that form the crux of too many historical interpretations and that serve to reinforce present-day sexism, racism, and other forms of bigotry.