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The Politics of Representation: The Fight for the Smithsonian Women’s History Museum

Famously, a young Paul Revere got on a horse in 1775 in order to warn the colonial militia that the British were coming. However, a girl who was even younger than Revere got on her horse to do the exact same thing in 1777, riding 40 miles, twice as far as Paul Revere, on roads she did not know in order to do so. Her name was Sybil Ludington, “…and nobody knows that story—nobody knows about her, and she should be known,” said Jane Abraham, the chair of the American Museum of Women’s History Congressional Commission, in an interview with The Politic. Why is Paul Revere a household name, but Sybil Ludington is not?

Women are consistently underrepresented in history. In elementary school, history textbooks typically have three times as many men as women, five times as many for middle school, and six times as many for high school. When women are depicted, they are generally portrayed doing household jobs, in stereotypically “feminine” roles. They are left out of the narrative of political and economic decisions, and women’s roles are often downplayed, leading to the marginalization of women in historical education.

Abraham took on this daunting challenge by chairing a Congressional Commission charged with studying the feasibility of establishing a national museum focused on women’s history and writing their findings in a report. The Commission had two years to produce this report with no funding. Additionally, the Commission included people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and political affiliations while requiring an unanimous vote on all issues published within the report. The members had to overcome their differences in order to focus on one important issue: the United States currently has no museums dedicated to women’s history of any kind. 

The fight began in 1995 with a  nonprofit called the National Women’s History Museum (NWHM). Karen Staser established the organization to advocate for a museum focused on the role that women have played throughout history, due to the unequal gender representation in traditional books and museums. Still, in 2020, there is no brick and mortar NWHM; it exists only virtually. As such, the NWHM stepped up to fund the Commission. 

Creating a new museum is no simple feat. “After many years of having different pieces of legislation come before them [Congress], sometimes that legislation went nowhere. Sometimes it was passed in the House but not in the Senate or vice versa,” said Abraham. The National Museum of African American History and Culture took 28 years in total to create—15 years to pass the bill and 13 to build. It cost $540 million dollars, half funded by the government and half funded by the private sector. No one expected the creation of a women’s history museum to be easy.

The Congressional Commission was created on December 19, 2014 and presented a unanimously-approved report on the creation of a women’s history museum to Congress on November 16, 2016. Along with Jane Abraham, the Commission’s members included: Mary Boies, Bridget Bush, Pat Mitchell, Marilyn Musgrave, Maria Socorro Pesqueira, Emily Rafferty, and former commissioner Kathy Wills Wright. The Commission also reached out beyond those in the commission, in order to ensure representation by younger women and women of color.

“Each [political] party was able to select two people and appoint them to that Commission, so there were eight of us,” Abraham explained. “So it was very diverse on all fronts—it was very diverse politically, it was very diverse professionally—we all brought different things to the mix, we all had different backgrounds.” 

The first thing that the Commission was tasked to do was to decide if there was a need for a women’s history museum and, if so, if it should be part of the Smithsonian Institution. The answer to both questions was yes. The Commission decided the museum should be part of the Smithsonian due to the advantages the brand provides, including the confidence it brings to donors, the wide variety of women’s-history-related artifacts it already owns, the wide visitor-ship it attracts, and the fair and balanced way it presents controversial exhibits. 

The Commission then decided that all decisions and recommendations by the Commission should be unanimous. Abraham explained, “By doing that, it required that any differences we might have had from a political standpoint, philosophical standpoint, from a geographical standpoint or a professional standpoint—any of those viewpoints had to be resolved amongst us for us to then be able to come to a unanimous conclusion.”

The Commission was also tasked with designing a potential organizational structure for the museum, finding available collections, understanding the best practices for engaging women in the museum’s development, recommending a location in Washington, D.C., developing a feasible fundraising plan, and determining a legislative plan of action. They established a fundraising goal of between $150-180 million from the private sector, with the private sector financing the cost of constructing the building.

The Commission intends for the museum to be free of charge for public entry, like the other Smithsonians museums. The Commission recommended that the museum be close to the other museums and on, or very close to, the national mall, although that may change. There were three preferred sites designated: the South Monument Site, the Northwest US. Capitol Site, and the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building. In addition, the Commission recommended that the government provide a piece of land free of charge or provide an existing building. The rough order of magnitude estimated for a 90,000 square foot building was projected to be $180,500,000.

A ten-year strategic plan that focused on building support, which was composed of three well-defined phases, culminating in the museum’s grand opening in 2026, was recommended by the Commission. The Commission supported the idea that the NWHM assist the Smithsonian’s effort to fundraise private sector funds, while also clearly delineating the roles of outside groups in regard to fundraising.

The second phase of the plan was for final site selection, to be completed in 2020, which required Congress to officially designate a plot of land or a renovated building for the museum. The Senate Bill requires that no later than 60 months after the enactment of the Bill, the Board of Regents should designate a site for the museum.

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The Senate Bill, however, has not passed. The Smithsonian Women’s History Museum Act was passed in the House on February 11, 2020. It was passed with a vote of 335 to 37.  The House Representatives who voted nay included: Aderholt (R-AL), Amash (I-MI), Arrington (R-TX), Babin (R-TX), Banks (R-IN), Biggs (R-AZ), Brooks (R-AL), Buck (R-CO), Budd (R-NC), Cheney (R-WY), Cloud (R-TX), Conaway (R-TX), Davidson (R-OH), Duncan (R-CA), Estes (R-KS), Fulchar (R-ID), Gosar (R-AZ), Grothman (R-WI), Harris (R-MD), Hice (R-GA), Higgins (R-LA), LaMalfa (R-CA), Marchant (R-TX), Massie (R-KY), McClintock (R-CA), Murphy (R-NC), Norman (R-SC), Palazzo (R-MS), Palmer (R-AL), Ratcliffe (R-TX), Rice (R-SC), Rouzer (R-NC), Roy (R-TX), Steube (R-FL), Thornberry (R-TX), Weber (R-TX), and Yoho (R-FL). The 37 representatives who voted against the bill were all Republicans, other than Justin Amash (MI), who is an Independent, and only included one woman, Liz Cheney (R-WY). 33 of the 37 representatives failed to answer why they voted no on the bill. All 9 of the House Representatives who voted against the National Museum of African American History and Culture Act, for the creation of that Smithsonian Museum, were also Republicans. 

“This was not a vote to dishonor women, rather I believe we should highlight the contributions women have made in all our institutions,” said the office of Congressman Robert Aderholt (R-AL) in email correspondence with The Politic. “All the museums should incorporate the history of women in every aspect of our history.”

“Congresswoman Cheney represents Wyoming, where generations of women have demonstrated grit, determination, courage and leadership in building our great state. She believes women’s accomplishments deserve to be honored in an equal manner, alongside those of men, as part of our great national story,” the office of Congresswoman Liz Cheney (R-WY) wrote in an email correspondence with The Politic, seemingly agreeing with Rep. Aderholt’s idea of the need for women’s accomplishments to be showcased in all of our institutions.

The office of Congressman Ralph Norman (R-SC) wrote in an email correspondence with The Politic, “Rep. Norman has three adult daughters and more granddaughters than he can keep track of.  His vote against the Smithsonian Women’s History Museum Act was certainly not a statement about the value of, or need for, a women’s history museum under the Smithsonian umbrella. Instead, his vote was against the $242 million in construction costs plus another $133 million in operating costs over just the next 10 years, per the CBO. All with zero reductions in federal spending to offset these costs while we’re already facing a $23 trillion national debt.  It’s consistent with how he’s voted since being elected in 2017, regardless of the issue.”

Representative Justin Amash had similar concerns about the practical feasibility of the project, including the sizable cost of the museum and other more political issues: “No hearings were held; there have been disagreements between the congressional commission and the Smithsonian about the museum’s size and likely cost; there’s concern about the political leanings of some organizations involved; and recent testimony from the head of the Smithsonian casts serious doubt on the Smithsonian’s capacity to complete and maintain a new museum at this time. These are issues Congress should resolve before proceeding with any project of this scale and significance,” the office of Congressman Justin Amash (I-MI) wrote in an email correspondence with The Politic.

The main concerns with the bill seem to fall in two separate categories: the belief that women should be incorporated into the preexisting history museums and the large costs associated with adding to the Smithsonian Institution. 

In responding to the concern about representing all political leanings and viewpoints in this museum, Abraham said, “We, as a commission, unanimously agreed that anything that goes into this type of museum should be complete—it should represent all viewpoints, be diverse. That’s part of our recommendation, it’s part of the legislation that was adopted.” She continued with, “That’s the intent of this museum, it is not the intent to be of one political view, of one viewpoint on a specific issue, at all. That’s why we had a diverse commission, and it’s why we made the decision that we were not going to put forth any recommendations unless we unanimously support them.”

Holly Hotchner, the President and CEO of the National Women’s History Museum non-profit, discussed, in an interview The Politic, her reaction to the view that women’s history should be incorporated into other history museums. She feels as though there is so much of women’s history to catch up on that even if every single history museum decided to do a few shows focused on women, there would still be an endless amount of topics left undiscussed: “It’s a subject that deserves its own museum. I think it’s a matter of neglect for so many centuries or years that there’s just so much material that needs to come to light. We need our own site, as well as every museum to include diversity and women.”

The bill being introduced to the Senate points out issues with the idea that women’s history should be incorporated into all museums well: “(A) a study of 18 United States history textbooks concluded that ten percent of the material documented contributions of women; (B) nine statues out of 91 in the United States Capitol’s National Statuary Hall depict women; and (C) only one of the 44 monuments operated by the National Park Service specifically honors the achievements of women after the 2016 designation of the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument.”

Although it may be quite some time, if ever, before the Senate actually votes on this bill, and, if passed, for the museum to be built, the Smithsonian has committed to including women more in their exhibits. In 2018, the Smithsonain created an American Women’s History Initiative, called “Because of Her Story.” Due to this initiative, the Smithsonian hired four curators dedicated to women’s history, with five more curatorial positions open, in order to develop exhibitions, programs, education material, and digital content across the preexisting Smithsonian museums.

The Smithsonian Women’s History Museum Act was passed in the House, but it must now be passed in the Senate. Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) wrote a letter to Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on February 24, 2020, urging the introduction of the bill on the Senate floor within this year, in order to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. If and when the bill is introduced, it is in the Senate’s hands to determine the future of the Women’s History Museum and, therefore, who is worthy of being represented in our nation’s history.