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US Congress: Give Us a National Women’s History Museum!

26 September 2012 No Comment

(l-r) Frances Callier, Joan Wages and Angela V. Shelton. Photo Credit: Amy Sievers

We interviewed Joan Wages, CEO of the National Women’s History Museum, about her work and efforts to highlight the many contributions of women to US history. Her responses are below.

What is the National Women’s History Museum, and why is it important?

It is important because even today, only one in ten figures in history books is  a woman, and less than 8% of the statues in our national parks are of women leaders. Even in our nation’s capital building, only 13 of the 217 statues are women. The point is that women have been left out of our nation’s story. And we need a National Women’s History Museum to recognize the meaningful contributions that women have made to our society in every field and every aspect, whether it is in the arts, science, education, medicine, politics, and so on.

How did you become involved with the Museum, and why is it important for you on a personal level?

I was lobbying on women’s issues on Capitol Hill, and I saw that there was an effort to move a statue of the three founders of the women’s suffrage movement, and Congress was resisting that statue being moved into the Rotunda. At the time I did not know who the women were, but what I thought was important was that women who were leaders in the development of our country would be standing with our founding fathers in the Rotunda. There were various reasons—they claimed it was too heavy, it was seven tons of marble, but an engineering study dispelled that as an excuse. We even had a member of Congress tell us that the women were “ugly.” And when I told Congresswoman Pat Schroeder that someone had said that, she asked if they had looked at Abraham Lincoln lately!

So there were various and sundry excuses, and Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House at that time, and they said they didn’t have the money. That’s when the Museum stepped up and said “We’ll pay!” So, it is the only statue in our Nation’s capital that we are aware of that has been moved with private money. I offered to help lobby to get that statue moved into the Rotunda, and in the course of lobbying and getting to know people who were working on the National Women’s History Museum, I began to learn more that I hadn’t learned before or in school, so I just found it more and more interesting. I agreed to serve on the Board of the museum, and then in 2007 I became the president. In addition to the website, we often have speakers speaking to groups across the country, we do mailings, where we get information out, and we have an email list through which we send out information. We are connecting and educating through every possible medium. Just recently our Los Angeles Council created a series of public service announcements and we’re working to get those on the air, we had radio clips during women’s history month, and of course, some lobbying on Capitol Hill.

The United States Congress has authorized various other museums, including the National Museum for African American History and Culture, the National Law Enforcement Museum, and the National Museum of the American Indian. What has held back the authorization of an institution in Washington, DC that is dedicated to women and their role in US history?

PHOTO-(l-r) Joan Wages, President/CEO, NWHM, Dr. Sonya Michel (University of Maryland) speaker and moderator/host at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Photo credit: Jan Du Plain

It’s a good question – why this museum is taking so long, why it has not yet happened. I think we have to look at why it took women 72 years to get the vote. And it seems that recognition of women’s contributions has been difficult to come by in every field and in every arena. You know, it’s why women have been left out of history—because it is primarily men who wrote the history for so long, and men in that way did not value what women’s contributions were. Our history has been recorded as being about so many wars, but the fact is, what was happening on the home front—how were women keeping the families together, working on the farm, keeping the communities together—those are all amazing contributions. Amazing because the men would have had nothing to come home to! There would have been no community or society to return to if women hadn’t kept it together. At the same time there has been little value given to those roles. Consequently it has been very difficult even to lobby on this, because we don’t know what we don’t know. So many members of Congress don’t know anything about women’s history. A man once said to the women who founded the museum, “If women had ever done anything, it would have been in the history books.”

In other words, women haven’t done anything to be recorded. That is the myth and perception that we have to dispel, and in order to do that we have a lot of educating to do. Before we start telling them about all of these amazing things women have done, we need to remember that they operate on the premise that women have done nothing. They’ve never thought about it, because they’ve never had to think about it. If they had thought about it, they would know that their mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers had done phenomenal things in the home and community, but they just haven’t thought about it on a national basis.

What is the organization doing to move forward and create a physical site on the National Mall? Who are your supporters and partners?

We have a number of members of Congress who are supporting this effort – every female member in the House and Senate has lent their support, and we are continuing to lobby and educate members of Congress about the need for the museum – we have over 50,000 charter members, which is growing all the time. We have Meryl Streep, who has pledged one million dollars, we have corporations who support the museum, we have our annual Gala coming up on November 14th and we have many who are pledging their support. The more money we can raise, the more we can show Congress that we can raise the money for the building of this museum, we are not asking for any federal dollars. We want to show we have a lot of momentum to get Congress to pass it. What has been difficult is educating that many people to build the momentum. As one PR person said to me, we have to get to the point where people have heard about this museum enough that they consider it a done deal.

Last week the legislation was introduced by Senator Susan Collins and the week before by Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney. The legislation, if passed, would create a commission that would identify and recommend to Congress a site for building the museum, and it would look at how the museum would be privately funded. We know that there is one vacant site on the mall, and there are potentially other sites close to the mall. So, we would work with the commission to make its recommendations. It would require the passage of legislation that would authorize building on the site.

Finally, what can women and men around the world do to support this initiative?

They can sign our petition on—it’s on the front page of our website, so they can sign on urging Congress to support our legislation, and they can also become members of the museum to help support our efforts.

If there’s one thing you could highlight to the word about the role of women in US history, what would it be?

There are so many amazing women—I would simply say that women have contributed in every aspect of the building of our country, and they should be honored and recognized for that.


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