Read the Exclusive Q&A With the Women Behind the National Women's History Museum
Mar 8, 2017
There's long been talk about building a National Women's History Museum in Washington D.C. And given that women's issues have become a global conversation in recent months, there's no better time than now to make that vision a reality.
MAKERS recently talked with President and CEO of the National Women's History Museum, Joan Wages, and the museum's board chair, Susan Whiting, to hear more about the future of the museum, what it will be like, and more.
Q: MAKERS set an ongoing #BEBOLD agenda at The 2017 MAKERS Conference in February to continue the conversation about women's leadership. How do each of you define what it means to #BEBOLD? And how are you both actively doing so?
Susan Whiting: The #BEBOLD agenda for the National Women’s History Museum (NWHM) is to work with Congress to pass legislation that will provide a site for the first and only Museum in any nation’s capital dedicated to telling the stories of its women. Today, women are only 15 percent of the figures in U.S. history books, and are only featured in 13 of the 217 statues in the U.S. Capitol building. We have a real opportunity to reverse this and teach girls and boys about the significant contributions women have always made in shaping our country to become what it is today.
Joan Wages: Our very mission is about being bold. We educate, inspire, empower and shape the future by integrating women’s distinctive history into the culture and history of the United States. Right now we operate as an online museum with interactive exhibits, teacher’s resources and more than 300 biographies of women.
Every student in the country knows about Paul Revere. But many don’t know about Sybil Ludington, who was barely 16 when she rode all night through the dark woods, covering forty miles (a significantly longer distance than Revere rode), urging her father’s regiment to come back to prepare to fight. Because of her bravery, almost the whole regiment was gathered by daybreak to fight the British.
Myra Sadker, an expert in classroom gender bias, said "Each time a girl opens a book and reads a womanless history, she learns she is worthless." If more students learned about people like Sybil, there would be no limit to what girls could see for themselves, and what boys could envision for them.
Q: Tell us more about what initially prompted your efforts to try to make this museum a reality, and what your roles are in the campaign.
JW: It all started when a group of women came together and raised $85,000 to move the Portrait Monument of Susan B. Anthony and other suffragists from the basement Crypt in the Capitol — where it was hidden for more than 75 years — to its rightful place in the Rotunda. Once there, we knew there needed to be a Museum to inspire future generations, and our campaign began. Each year for 15 years, legislation was introduced, but never passed, until we successfully worked with Congress to create a bi-partisan Commission to study the need for a women’s history museum on the National Mall, which the NWHM fully funded. The Commission delivered its report to Congress in November 2016, which said that Americans deserve a women’s history museum on the National Mall. Now, we are working with several members of Congress to write and pass legislation that will designate a site.
SW: Susan B. Anthony is a relative of mine and I have always been inspired by her perseverance. The NWHM has persevered for the past 20 years and we are closer now than we’ve ever been to making this museum a reality. Once the legislation is passed, we will begin a capital campaign to build the museum, create an endowment and initiate the curating process.
Q: Inclusively is arguably one of the hottest topics of the moment, especially given the current political climate. How do you anticipate sharing the stories of all women to accurately reflect history?
SW: To tell the full story of women’s contributions to our nation’s history, we must tell the stories of all women. It will be critical for us to work closely with the great number of historians, scholars, academics, educators and others who can help identify those stories and ensure that the Museum is as diverse and inclusive as the population it seeks to represent.
Q: Right now, the plan is to open the world-class museum in our nation's capital. Have you considered any other cities?
SW: All the national museums that represent various aspects of history or science or art are based in Washington, D.C. To be considered a truly "national museum," we feel strongly we should be in the nation’s capital and on the National Mall.
Q: As a women's storytelling platform, MAKERS is always looking to unearth those stories from heroic women whose voices may not have been heard in the pages of history. If you can, describe to us some of the most compelling ideas you have for future exhibits, if you've thought that far ahead.
SW: Right now, we are focused on raising money to fund building the museum. We have certainly thought about what we would like to see, but the process for curating a museum is very complex. We hope it will be engaging, entertaining, interactive and inspiring to everyone who visits.
Q: We understand there's a rumored budget of about $150M. Tell us how you are fundraising, and what that outreach looks like. Are you advertising, or calling on public figures to donate?
SW: The amount we will need to raise will be dependent on the site and the size of the museum. We expect the amount to be around that number, but will probably be a little more.
Q: Aside from money, what has been one of the biggest setbacks or challenges that has prevented you from moving forward with building the museum?
SW: Our biggest hurdle has been getting Congress to support the Museum legislatively. We have had strong bi-partisan support for two decades, but getting Congress to pass any legislation is difficult and this hasn’t been a priority. The best move for us was to take a step back and work for a Commission process, which is what other museums on the Mall have done. That step back ultimately proved to be a successful step forward, and we believe that now is the time for us to finally get the legislation we need to get a site.
Q: Why do you feel like now is the most important time to campaign for the creation of this museum?
SW: Thanks to the Commission’s report, we have a bi-partisan group of experts who recommend that a national women’s history museum be built on the National Mall, which gives us a level of credibility that we haven’t had before. There are more than 200 members of Congress who have supported us in the past. We have 55,000 charter members, an additional 50,000 supporters who have joined our cause this past year, a coalition of national organizations with a collective membership that reaches more than 8 million people nationwide, and the benefit of a movement of women — and people who support women — who want to see these stories told.
Q: We often ask this question to all our MAKERS: How do you each define feminism?
SW: Feminism, to us, is a critical part of American culture and an aspect of our Museum, but there is so much more history to modern-day feminism that people don’t know about. The Museum certainly will tell the story of the feminist movement as well as adding a broad range of women's stories to the fabric of our nation’s tapestry. We have always made up 50 percent of the population, but our stories have been left out of our country’s narrative, which directs our culture and how our history is told. The National Women’s History Museum will make great strides in changing that. In the future, we see a nation that values the stories of our foremothers, and the movements they led, as much as it does the stories of our forefathers.
Q: What do you hope the ultimate impact will be on society when this National Women’s History Museum is open to the public? And can you give us a sneak peek of when you think that may be?
SW: Women are and have always been integral to American history. We don’t want to rewrite history, but highlight the important role women have made and continue to make in society, business, science, politics and every other aspect of American life. In many cases, women’s stories have not been told or not been told completely, and in other cases, completely forgotten.
We have an opportunity to add to the intricate stories that build the fabric of our collective American history. The National Women’s History Museum will be the first museum in any nation’s capital to show the full scope of the history of its women and will serve as a guiding light to people everywhere.
But this isn’t a single gender proposition. This is important for boys, too, because it teaches them that girls — eventual colleagues — have value and should be respected. Learning about women in history allows both genders to see that gender should not be the deciding factor in what a person can or cannot do.
For our nation to remain great, we must draw on the talents of all of our citizens. Girls and women, along with boys and men, aspire to be our next generation of leaders in every field—science, politics, arts, economics, history and education. In the land of opportunity, we all contribute to the foundation of our core beliefs of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
And while the timing right now relies on many factors, our goal is to work as swiftly as possible with Congress and the necessary stakeholders to make this museum a reality so that our next generation of leaders benefits from knowing our nation’s complete history.
Q: Please let us know if there's anything else you feel our MAKERS audience would love to learn about you or the museum in general.
SW: We hope that your audience will join our movement to build the National Women’s History Museum on the National Mall. Visit our website, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, and learn more about women you didn’t hear about in school. Become an advocate and let your members of Congress know that this is important and you support it. Our nation deserves a national women's history museum and we’ve waited too long for one.
Photo Credit: National Women's History Museum