The Fight for the American Museum of Women’s History

By: Keren Neugroschl  |  January 2, 2017

An aerial view of Washington, D.C., focusing on the United States Capitol.
Out of the 2,400 National Historic Landmarks in the United States, 5% are dedicated to a woman’s achievement. There are 5,193 public statues in the country, but only 294 are statues of women. The National Parks Service maintains forty-four memorials, and not one is for a woman.

In New York City, one of the most populous and diverse cities in the country, there are only five public statues of historic women. In Central Park, there are twenty-two statues of men and none of women.

The nation’s capital, where women have served in public office, lobbied for important pieces of legislation, and improved the democratic system, is no different. The Capitol building holds 210 statues, and only nine of them are of women.

To be clear, the reason for the huge discrepancy in public recognition between men and women is not because women have contributed any less to American history. Since before the United States was founded, women have been equals in laying the foundations of this country and blazing a trail for future generations.

Anne Hutchinson, a 17th century colonist, refused to be silent and advocated for religious freedom, ultimately being banished from her home for doing so. Lucretia Mott was a prominent abolitionist and feminist who converted her home into a stop on the Underground Railroad and organized the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. Sojourner Truth was a human rights activist who campaigned throughout the country as a preacher and also raised money during the Civil War for African American soldiers. Dorothea Dix tirelessly advocated for asylum and prison reform in the 19th century, transforming these systems. Mary Harris Jones was a leader of the labor movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Nellie Bly was an investigative journalist who chronicled the struggles of disenfranchised segments of the American population. Jeannette Rankin was the first women elected to Congress in 1916. Esther Ross spent half a century working to gain federal recognition for a Native American tribe. Toni Morrison is a Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winner and known for her expert portrayals of the experience of being an African American.

These women are just a fraction of the thousands of women who contributed to American society and revolutionized our country, all while breaking through barriers that they faced because of their gender. And yet, these feats are largely forgotten in the country’s institutions.

In recent years, steps have been taken to begin to rectify this vast inequality in recognition. In April of this year, President Obama designated the headquarters of the feminist organization the National Woman’s Party as the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, making it the first national monument dedicated to women.

New York City has promised to change the fact that there are only statues of men in Central Park by allowing the creation of statues of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and of Susan B. Anthony in the park. There is currently a fund in place that is collecting donations for these statues.

While these are important steps to create parity in recognition, no project has been as hard-fought or ambitious as the fight to create the American Museum of Women’s History. The project was first born in 1996 with the creation of the National Women’s History Museum, a group advocating for a museum solely dedicated to educating the public on the contributions women have made to this country.

In 1998, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) introduced legislation that would start the first step of building the American Museum of Women’s History, the creation of a commission to research the logistics involved. All efforts to build the museum were ignored until 2014, when then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor permitted a vote on the bipartisan legislation, introduced by Maloney and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) to create this commission. The bill passed 383 to 33 in the House, and legislation to create the commission passed the Senate in an equally bipartisan way, with all 20 women Senators cosponsoring the bill.

The privately-funded commission comprising of a team of eight historians and museum experts, all of whom are women, were tasked with determining how much the museum will cost, where it should be located, and if it should join the Smithsonian Institution. After 18 months of conducting research, holding meetings, and engaging with the public, the commission released their findings on November 16th.

The commission presented a 10-year plan to build the American Museum of Women’s History, a Smithsonian Institution located on the National Mall. While the Smithsonian Institution will pay for maintenance of the museum once it is built, the $150 to $180 million needed to build will be privately funded. The commission requested that Congress donate land or an existing building on the National Mall for the museum. Since 2003, no construction has been allowed on the National Mall, however, advocates of the museum are hoping that an exception will be made, similar to the one made for the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Despite the commission’s findings, the American Museum of Women’s History faces many hurdles before it becomes a reality. Smithsonian Secretary, David Skorton, reportedly acknowledged the importance of increasing recognition of women in U.S. history, but told the commission that “building a new museum is not practical now” with too many other projects in the works.

In addition, similar efforts to the American Museum of Women’s History have been unsuccessful in ultimately building a museum. The National Museum of African American History and Culture was only built after over 100 years of commissions, legislation, and raising money. A commission was formed in the 1990s to create a museum to acknowledge the influence of Latino culture on the U.S., but no such museum has been created. Instead, the Smithsonian has chosen to hire more Latino curators and create individual exhibits to teach Latino history and culture in this country.

While the American Museum of Women’s History is still far from becoming a reality, the project has been pushed to the forefront of the public’s minds, and along with it, the legacies of thousands of forgotten women.