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Recently, at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Secretary David J. Skorton announced the launch of the American Women’s History Initiative. The Washington Post reported that the effort will emphasize the work, stories, and achievements of women, which Skorton described as historically “underrated, undervalued, and sometimes completely unrecognized.”
The federally-funded institution plans to create new programs and hire curators across Smithsonian locations, with the specific intention of showcasing women. Congress will put $2 million toward support of the program, and the Smithsonian is raising private funds to supplement the federal grant.
But some advocates have even bigger ambitions. House Democrat Carolyn B. Maloney, of New York, hopes this will be the first step toward creating a new museum solely dedicated to women’s history. “The Smithsonian’s American Women’s History Initiative is integral in laying the groundwork for a future Smithsonian museum dedicated to American women’s history,” Maloney said, according to The Washington Post. “After all, how can we expect to inspire women and girls if we do not recognize them?” She is not alone. Maloney authored a bill to establish a museum, and it has over 250 co-sponsors.
While Skorton supports the American Women’s History Initiative, he said a American Women’s History Museum isn’t possible right now. “We’re not in a position to initiate any new museums in the near future,” he said. “I know what I can do, and what I want to do is work hard and in a focused way, immediately, to tell the story of women’s history.”
Even so, Jane Abramson, the chair of a congressional commission that supports a new Smithsonian museum, has created a ten-year plan for a museum’s development. She proposed a privately-funded institution, to remove the need for lawmakers to pledge money. Private philanthropy, however, “goes against what we have done in the past,” Skorton said.
Advocates for the museum have compared the effort to the decades-long campaign to create the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which was developed with a 50-50 federal-private partnership. It opened in 2016 to wild success — after a 15-year effort to get a bill passed for its construction, plus 13 more to build it. Ideas for that institution, too, were initially shut down with the same reasoning: that African American accomplishments and narratives could find their place in exhibitions at various Smithsonian locations, and needn’t be given their own museum.
The mission of the American Women’s History Initiative is broad: according to its website, they hope to recruit an education specialist and at least six new curators for five-year terms across the Smithsonian institutions, mentor ten paid interns a year, establish an acquisition fund to build a collection of relevant objects already showcased at the Smithsonian, and produce an annual symposium. They also plan to implement major exhibitions on women’s citizenship and suffrage, and to distribute relevant grants.
The effort has much in common with the National Women’s History Museum, a nonprofit organization developed in 1996 that hosts educational and public programs. Founders spent their early years dedicated to moving Adelaide Johnson’s statue, “Portrait Monument to Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony” (1920) from the U.S. Capitol’s basement to the Capitol Rotunda. Today, the organization’s vision, according to its website, “is to build a world-class museum at the National Mall in Washington D.C.”
It’s worth considering the word museum once implied a temple to the Muses — who are goddesses. And while it’s perhaps unsurprising that a Smithsonian-supported American Women’s History Museum isn’t on the table at the moment, this initial dissent — just like the one opposed to the National Museum of African American History and Culture — could paradoxically be a step toward a future museum.
Currently, there’s one museum dedicated to women in Washington, D.C., the National Museum of Women in the Arts: “the only major museum in the world solely dedicated to” women in the performing, literary, and visual arts. They utilize their social media platform to support not only women artists, but also important figures in history, like Shirley Chisholm. Though they’re not a history museum, they provide a good model, particularly in their emphasis on women of color. An American Women’s History Museum would be an opportunity to upend the colonialist framework and literal whitewashing typical of many national institutions. If a national women’s history museum ever becomes a reality, Susan B. Anthony, for example, ought to be given reverence — but she is also the woman who said, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” A truly successful American Women’s History Museum would give Ida B. Wells, and the Native American women who supported and inspired the Women’s Suffrage movement, their own pedestals, too.