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Discovering History: Women’s History Museums

Harriet Tubman or Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but the majority of U.S. history is dominated by male leaders. Ever read about the work of Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig, co-developer of the “blue baby” heart procedure that has saved thousands of lives? Does the name Muriel Siebert, the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, sound familiar? Did you know that, despite working to pave the way for the passage of the 19th Amendment, Susan B. Anthony never actually cast a legal ballot?

Discovering women’s history and paying tribute to women leaders inspires, builds self-esteem and creates a can-do attitude that helps 51 percent the nation’s population reach their potential. But women have not yet achieved political, economic or professional parity, which is why continuous learning through women’s history museums is important for women—and men.

“Regardless of how things may seem on the surface, women do not yet have equality,” says Christine Moulton, executive director of the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, N.Y., home of the Women’s Rights Convention. “We ask visitors, ‘Do you think women have equality and parity?’ Very often, we hear a quick ‘Yes, I can go to college. I can play sports. Those opportunities are open to me.’ So I think there’s sometimes a lack of awareness of pay-equity issues and of female representation on Fortune 500 boards and in the upper echelons of companies,” she says. “We’re lagging behind many countries in the world in that we’ve not elected a female head of state yet. There are still many issues facing women.”

Women’s history museums set gender disparities into context, highlighting the challenges while celebrating achievements. They also deliver robust learning experiences that corporations can integrate into professional-development programs. Here are a few outstanding women’s history museums and how they’re helping to level the playing field. 

Also read: Women’s History Month FactsBlack HistoryThings NEVER to Say to Women Executivesresilient, gender disparities research

National Women’s Hall of Fame

“There’s something to be said about being in Seneca Falls, the place where it all began,” says Moulton, referring to the home of Stanton, the 1848 Convention and more. The historic significance of this small village prompted a local group in 1969 to launch the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Today, it’s the oldest membership organization of its kind in the nation. The Hall of Fame offers an extensive research library and exhibits of 236 trailblazing women that inspire thousands of visitors each year.

“No matter who you are, what walk of life you come from or what your aspirations are, you can find a similar [woman] here to use as your role model,” says Moulton. From New York politician and feminist Bella Abzug to Antonia Novello, the first woman and Latino to be named U.S. surgeon general, “many of our inductees have overcome adversity that we can’t even imagine and have gone on to do things that have changed our world.”

Moulton reports that visitors are often moved by the personal artifacts on display such as:

  • An evening bag and pair of shoes worn by Amelia Earhart . “Like so many working women, she did have a personal and family life,” she says.
  • A flight suit worn by Lt. Colonel EileenCollinthe first woman to command the Space Shuttle.
  • A scarf originally belonging to Earhart, which Sally Ride subsequently brought on a space mission.
  • A bonnet worn by Stanton.
  • Original copies of early women’s-rights newspapers, such as “The Revolution” and “The Lily.” “People [are] able to read those papers and … [see] how women were using the pen to advocate for very radial ideas,” she says.

As for legislative achievements, says Moulton, people are surprised to learn that the Equal Rights Amendment legislation, which has yet to pass, was originally proposed more than 85 years ago. “That, too, was introduced right here in Seneca Falls by Alice Paul on the steps of the Presbyterian Church,” she says.

Thanks in part to a $2.5-million grant from the state of New York, the Hall of Fame is planning to expand its exhibit space four-fold when it moves to a 36,000-square-foot limestone knitting mill, built in 1844. “Two of the earliest owners of the building were among the 32 men who signed the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments,” explains Moulton. (Frederick Douglass, who attended the Seneca Falls Convention and helped pass the Declaration’s resolutions, described this document as the “grand basis for attaining the civil, social, political and religious rights of women.”)

What does Moulton hope visitors take away from the experience? “I’d like them to leave saying, ‘I can do anything that I want to do,’” she says.

The Women’s Museum: An Institute for the Future

image“Heroines of American history have been generally omitted—and certainly women in contemporary times … have not been recognized,” says Wanda R. Brice, CEO of the decade-old Women’s Museum. A Smithsonian affiliate, the museum is located in a stunning 70,000-square-foot art-deco building in Fair Park in Dallas, and it’s the only comprehensive women’s history museum in the United States that includes contributions of women spanning more than 500 years.

“Girls and women who come to the museum see ordinary women living extraordinary lives, and they realize that they too can contribute greatly to society,” she says.

With sponsorship from companies such as AT&T (No. 4 in The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity) and Bank of America (No. 11), the permanent exhibit space includes:

  • A 30-foot-high matrix of images, photos, quotes and video cubes that are excerpted throughout the museum.
  • A time capsule that compares everyday items used 100 years ago, such as irons, sewing machines and even birth-control devices, to those in use today. Among the thousands of artifacts on display at The Women’s Museum, a few include a persuasive letter written by Abigail Adams (wife of John Adams) and promotional materials of an 18th-century women’s rights organization.

From April 23 to July 4, a temporary exhibit entitled Freedom’s Sisters highlights vignettes of “what are arguably the 20 most influential African-American women in the nation’s history,” says Brice. Supported by the Ford Foundation, the Freedom’s Sisters exhibit includes educational opportunities and outreach to women’s and girl’s organizations.

“All of our exhibits are very diverse,” she says, “and carefully calculated to ensure [the inclusion of] women from all ethnic backgrounds in American history.” To ensure visitors “don’t miss seeing their particular heroines,” the museum offers tracks focused on the achievements of Latinas and Black, American Indian, Asian-American, Jewish-American and even Texan women, “for our local visitors,” adds Brice.

The Women’s Museum hosts company meetings and supplements corporate diversity-training programs. In addition, it provides networking and leadership-development learning sessions to women employees of AT&T, Capital One (No. 31, 2010 DiversityInc Top 50) and 37 other member-partner organizations. In the 184-seat auditorium, it also offers environmental-leadership and STEM programming for underserved visiting middle-school girls and summer-camp groups. “We often have women engineers come in and talk to them,” says Brice, adding that the organization is in the process of developing distance-learning programming to expand its reach. “Building self-confidence in these girls and encouraging them to dream big and stay in school is the foundation of all our programming.”

What feedback does Brice receive from men who visit? “Every little boy who comes through here says, ‘No, a woman did not invent Monopoly!’” she says.


Women In Military Service For America Memorial

“What about us? Why weren’t we recognized?” asked a woman war vet, referring to the 400,000 women who risked their lives during World War II. So after conducting research in the mid-1980s, it was discovered that “memorials were all oriented toward men who served,” explains U.S. Air Force Ret. Brigadier General Wilma L. Vaught.

That sparked the idea for the creation of the Women In Military Service For America Memorial, located at ArlingtonNationalCemetery and honoring the unsung heroines from all armed forces who have ever served in the nation’s defense. During the museum’s dedication in 1997, Merck & Co. (No. 15 in The DiversityInc Top 50) provided financial support, while AT&T set up an exhibit featuring the “hello girls,” World War I women switchboard operators who spoke French.

Today, the living memorial and 35,000-square-foot education center receives about 200,000 visitors annually. Highlights include:

  • The Hall of Honor, a majestic room lined with the sister blocks of marble used for the Tomb of the Unknowns. Trimmed with flags, the spaceprovides recognition to women who died in service, were prisoners of war or were recipients of our nation’s highest awards for bravery.
  • A series of exhibits chronicling women in service from the American Revolution to the Iraq/Afghanistan conflict.
  • Twelve computer kiosks where visitors can call up documents on 240,000 registered servicewomen dating back to the American Revolution.
  • A journal, located at the back of the memorial, where visitors can add comments about their experience. “I read them all,” says Vaught, who is the foundation’s president. “Very frequently, school children will indicate that they never realized how much women had done during war.”
  • The Office of History & Collections, housing an extensive library of books by and about military women, photo and document archives, memoirs and oral histories. Unfortunately, “the first book on the history of women in the military … didn’t come out until the 1970s,” notes Vaught.

One of the most memorable temporary exhibits, she says, was Faces of the Fallen, 13,000 portraits of the first women and men service members who were killed in the Iraq conflict. On display for three years, “it pulled in about 650,000 people … many servicewomen,” says Vaught. “Family members and friends would come here and look up people they knew. They would leave notes to them … ribbons … coins … pictures as mementos of their visit. It was incredible.”

This strikes the heart of the memorial’s mission, says Vaught, “to recognize the contributions and real sacrifice women in the military have made.”

National Women’s History Museum

Although still a cyber-museum, legislation to build a permanent facility for the National Women’s History Museum (NWHM) on the National Mall is moving forward. The House passed its version of The National Women’s History Museum Act (H.R. 1700) last October. Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., who introduced the bill, said, “There are museums for stamps and spies, for news and for poetry, but today’s action by the House means women are on our way toward a ‘museum of our own.’ What women have contributed to the building of our country is a story long overdue for the telling.” The Senate version (S. 2129) was pending vote in the Public Works committee at press time. If either passes, “at the outside, it will be eight years to complete,” says President and CEO Joan Bradley Wages.

The reason a permanent women’s museum on the National Mall is so important is because too few historic sites commemorate women’s lives. According to NWHM, among the 210 statues in the United States Capitol, only nine are of women leaders and less than 5 percent of the 2,400 national historic landmarks chronicle women’s achievements.

“Our history has predominantly been about the white male,” says Wages. “So this is about completing the picture of the history of our nation.”

But unsigned legislation hasn’t stopped NWHM from promoting women’s history through corporate-sponsored exhibits and projects over the years. For instance, Abbott (No. 24) donated $25,000 to help move the Women Suffrage Statue from the Capitol Crypt to the Rotunda; strong>AMERICAN EXPRESS (No. 13) sponsored a women’s exhibit that was once on display at the WorldFinancialCenter.

NWHM also provides extensive research and lesson plans for educators throughout its site, which receives roughly 60,000 hits during Women’s History Month. In addition, the site has been referenced by more than 24,400 institutions since inception. Recent postings include Claiming Their Citizenship: African American Women from 1624-2009 and Young and Brave: Girls Changing History. Information such as this, says Wages, “gives girls ideas about how to expand their horizons.”

Maryland Women’s Heritage Center & Museum

Scheduled to open in April, the Maryland Women’s Heritage Center & Museum will be the first state-focused museum dedicated to “inclusively recognizing the contributions of Maryland women of diverse backgrounds and regions,” says Executive Director Jill Moss Greenberg. “We’re [also] very consciously creating a model for what other states can do to honor women and girls.”

Located in the former Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. headquarters in Baltimore, this is an outgrowth of the Maryland Women’s History Project, a 1980 joint effort between the Maryland Commission for Women and the Maryland State Department of Education, which oversees numerous projects. As a result, the organization’s board includes Maryland’s current and former first ladies and other state figureheads.

Museum plans call for a combination of exhibits and displays featuring women in sports, business, the arts, science and technology, education and politics. The heritage center will include a hall of fame with 125 renowned inductees from throughout Maryland as well as “unsung heroines,” says Moss Greenberg, “women who were the glue that held together our families, communities.”

Notable women who will be featured:

  • Margaret Brent, the first woman in the American colonies to demand the right to vote
  • Mary Pickersgill, whose flag inspired the national anthem
  • Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross
  • Henrietta Szold, founder of adult education
  • Marin Alsop, the first woman to become conductor of a major orchestra in the United States
  • Rachel Carson, a zoologist and author who spearheaded the modern environmental movement

As a testament to women’s collaborative spirit, the center was designed and built by women-owned businesses, and many of the products and services used for the launch were donated by women-led organizations.

“What’s most important,” stresses Moss Greenberg, “is that equity and diversity are at the core of our museum.”

 

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1 Comment

  • Anonymous

    Might add the International Women’s Air and Space Museum, Burke Lakefront Airport, Cleveland, Ohio

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