Our History

Historians Working to Place Women's Sites on the Map

Thursday, December 11, 2003

A small group of female historians is taking steps to tell the often overlooked story of women's history in America. They aim to do that by identifying, restoring and promoting historical sites affiliated with notable women in American history.

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The Sewall-Belmont House

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)--Someday, families will plan their summer vacations around an entirely new set of historic monuments and sites.

Gettysburg, yes. But also, the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum in Washington.

This is the vision of the founders of theNational Collaborative for Women's History Sitesthat first started meeting in 1999. They knewthere were acres of gender gap to fill out there in the U.S. landscape.

Of the thousands of historic sites associated with notable Americans, fewer than 4 percent focus on women's contribution to history, says Rhonda Carboni, co-chair of the National Collaborative for Women's History Sites, based in Washington. The lack of such sites deprives educators and activists of one of the best means to teach the public about women's history, added Marty Langelan, president of the National Woman's Party. Such sites are invaluable because they provide a "direct connection" between the past and present, she said. "There's just no substitute for walking the hallways they walked."

The paucity of female subjects wasn't something that people such as Dr. Heather Huyck, a historian with the National Park Service, felt comfortable leaving to posterity. It was time, she and other women's history advocates decided, to put more female historic figures on the map.

"America's story makes no sense with half of its participants missing," Huyck said two years ago upon announcing the group's formal launch in October 2001. "Leaving women out of the story is as serious a distortion of our history as trying to tell the history of the Civil War without talking about black history."

Restoring Women's History

It is a thesis that Gail Lee Dubrow and Jennifer Goodman pick up on in their January 2003 book, "Restoring Women's History Through Historic Preservation." The preponderance of male-centered historical sites, the authors argue, perpetuates the notion that men have been the primary agents of social change.

With the archives well stocked with notable female contributors to U.S. history, such as Susan B. Anthony and author Pearl S. Buck, the gap seemed to be depriving vacationing families and history buffs the chance to understand "her" story as well as his.

Two activists, Barbara Irvine, who founded the Alice Paul Institute in New Jersey in 1985, and Dorothy Farrell, former president of the National Women's Party, set about filling in the historic gaps in 1999. They reached out to historians, preservationists and citizen activists and scheduled the group's first meeting in Philadelphia in March of that year, Irvine said.

The participants envisioned the formation of an umbrella organization that would serve as a network to unite the local groups of amateur and professional historians of women's history scattered across the country. The also hoped it would serve as a sort of clearinghouse for resources and information.

The Sewall-Belmont House and Museum

With $5,000 in seed grant money from the Washington-based National Park Service, the initial informal group of founders began to reach out to members of historic sites from across the country: the Molly Brown Birthplace and Museum in Missouri, the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in Chicago, and the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Connecticut, as just three examples. By 2001, they had recruited representatives from about three dozen groups devoted to preserving women's history. Today, Irvine estimates that there are more than 100 members in the collaborative.

One of the charter members, the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum, served as the site for the opening reception for this year's annual meeting. During that weekend meeting in October, the fledgling organization announced their most recent organizational milestone.

Last summer, the Internal Revenue Service had granted it 501c3 status, a section of the national tax code enabling a group to raise money through public and private grants and donations. The designation--which opens the doors to funding and easier interaction with other nonprofit organizations--was also something that organizers said would help them lay out a strategic plan.

The Sewall-Belmont house was a particularly poignant setting to celebrate the group's new status, given that it is one of relatively few women's historic sites on course to be completely restored in the near future. Standing just blocks away from the United States Capitol Building, the red-brick structure, first built in 1799 and rebuilt after it was set afire by British troops in 1814, has served as the headquarters for the National Women's Party served since 1929.

The structure also holds a museum dedicated to women's campaign for full citizenship and their determination to obtain equal rights. The museum showcases various women's rights artifacts, such as campaign banners, political cartoons, paintings and sculpture. It also houses the oldest feminist library in the country, boasting a collection that includes 1,500 photographic images documenting the women's movement and National Women's Party papers from 1877 to 1974.

Aimed at locating, preserving and promoting sites around the country associated with women's history, the members have identified numerous projects. One they hope to promote is the Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, N.Y. The park incorporates the homes of early suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the patron saint of the modern-day women's movement. It also includes the Wesleyan Chapel, where Stanton met with fellow Quaker abolitionists to convene the first Women's Rights Convention in 1848. There, these women drafted the "Declaration of Sentiments"--a document modeled after the Declaration of Independence that demanded full citizenship for women.

The group also hopes to promote sites such as The Fair Hill Burial Ground, the Philadelphia cemetery where many suffragists, like Lucretia Mott and Mary Ann McClintock, were buried, and The Flag House and Star-Spangled Banner Museum in Baltimore, the late 18th and early 19th century home of flag-maker Mary Pickersgill. She made the flag that served as the inspiration for Francis Scott Key, who, upon seeing her banner in the early light of dawn, wrote the poem that became the national anthem.

"In some places, sites are linked with men, but women were there and their stories need to be told," Huyck said when the group was launched. "There is no site that doesn't have women's history. If we are to understand who we are and where we've come from, we need to know the whole story."

Allison Stevens is a writer in Washington.

For more information:

Sewall-Belmont House and Museum:
http://sewallbelmont.org/

National Collaborative for Women's Historic Sites:
http://ncwhs.oah.org

Alice Paul Institute:
http://www.alicepaul.org

 

 
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