Raoul Josset's Spirit of the Centennial statue

DALLAS–The statue in front of the new women’s history museum in Dallas shows a maiden in filmy drapery perched delicately on a towering saguaro cactus.

Carved in 1936 to commemorate Texas’ independence from Mexico in 1836, the piece has taken on a distinctly feminist symbolism that French sculptor Raoul Josset certainly never intended.

But nothing could better exemplify the long struggle to include women’s contributions in mainstream history–a prickly issue requiring a great deal of determination, hard work and finesse to surmount. Proponents have had to deal with everything from lack of financial support to opposition from those who simply did not understand why such a historical record was necessary.

“It’s always been treated as forcing something new into the picture,” says Molly Murphy MacGregor, co-founder and executive director of the National Women’s History Project. “What we need to be doing is taking a step back and looking at a whole new picture, widen the perspective.”

That’s what’s happened September 29 in Dallas as the Women’s Museum: An Institute for the Future officially opened to the public. Smithsonian-affiliated and high-tech, it is the first national museum devoted to a comprehensive look at women’s contributions to society.

Founder Had a Dream about a Museum for Women

“It’s exciting. It’s fabulous. The time has finally come,” says Cathy Bonner, the museum’s founder and president of its board of directors. The idea for the museum literally came to Bonner in a dream in 1996. The vision nagged at her until she began recruiting people to help her make it happen. She was determined the museum would open in 2000 because she liked the symbolism of the new millennium.

Despite a great deal of skepticism from folks who thought her timeline was too ambitious, Bonner and the people she corralled to help her managed to raise $30 million, find and renovate an historic art deco building (with the help of famed architect Wendy Evans Joseph who worked gratis for a year) and commission interactive exhibits that showcase a diverse group of women.

The Women’s Museum: An Institute for the Future combines collections of artifacts with video displays and interactive terminals that allow visitors to share their own stories of remarkable women.

“This all came together so quickly, I’m convinced it was just meant to be,” Bonner says.

The exhibits are a mixture of physical artifacts–one of Babe Didrickson Zaharias’ golf bags, for example–and high-tech exhibits such as a continuously looping video of comediennes’ routines and an electronic quilt that features images from all the museum’s exhibits. A video theater presents a montage of conversations between women of different generations comparing life stories.

For further information on women’s museums, visit:

The Women’s Museum: An Institute for the Future:

The National Women’s History Project:

The National Women’s History Museum:

The National Cowgirl Hall of Fame:

The International Museum of Women:

The Women of the West Museum:

The National Women’s Hall of Fame:

The Women’s Rights National Historical Park:

The National Museum for Women in the Arts:

Four More Women’s Museums Scheduled to Open This Decade

National Women’s History Museum, Washington, D.C. Founded in 1996–the same year as the Dallas museum–it is housed now in three rooms in Alexandria, Va., while organizers raise funds and search for a building. They hope that its location will be on the National Mall and that the facility can open its doors in 2007.

The National Cowgirl Hall of Fame is scheduled to break ground next year in Fort Worth, Texas, and open in 2002. It is about 30 miles from the Women’s Museum: An Institute for the Future.

The International Museum of Women will be in San Francisco, construction to begin in 2003, scheduled opening in 2005.

The Women of the West Museum in Denver has no firm date for opening a physical space but already operates as a “museum without walls” by offering online exhibits, traveling exhibits and educational programs. This week it unveils a new online exhibit called This Shall Be The Land For Women: The Struggle for Women’s Suffrage in the West, 1860-1920.

Women’s contributions have made it into other, existing museums as well, but in a less comprehensive fashion.

In another high-tech room, museum visitors can listen to a poem or song written by a woman. On the low-tech end of things, folks can stroll along a wall featuring a timeline for women’s history or wander through a maze that showcases 19th and 20th century icons of womanhood. Some displays are devoted to women’s health, others chronicle women’s impact as inventors, sports figures, in spiritual life, science, business, entertainment and social movements.

It is the first of five major museums devoted to mainstreaming women’s impact on history that are scheduled to open this decade.

“There’s definitely something in the air,” says Joan Wages, director of development for the National Women’s History Museum.

The Women’s Museum Movement, Too, Began in Seneca Falls

Riding the surge of activism that swept the nation in the 1960s, a small group of people founded The National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1969 in Seneca Falls, N.Y., site of the first women’s suffrage convention. It honors individual women who made significant contributions to America’s history, A to Z, everyone from Abzug (Bella) to Zaharias (Mildred “Babe” Didrickson). Nineteen new women will be inducted next month.

The Hall is near the Women’s Rights National Historical Park that was created in 1980 by Congress on the site of the chapel where the historic Declaration of Sentiments was approved. The document declared men and women were created equal and demanded full participation in society, including the right to vote and hold public office.

The following year, a private, non-profit group founded the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. It is the only museum dedicated to displaying the works of women regardless of ethnic or artistic affiliation.

“One day you look around and you realize you’re not included,” says Ann Lewis, co-chair of the President’s Commission on the Celebration of Women in American History. “Once you notice what’s missing, you see it everywhere and you want to change it,” she says.

The current interest in promoting women’s history was spurred, in part, by two major milestones in the late 1990s: the 75th anniversary of the 19th amendment, that gave women the right to vote, and the 150th anniversary of the first women’s suffrage convention.

MacGregor says those events, plus a television documentary by Ken Burns about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, popularized women’s history and made people start thinking about how much is not generally known.

Others say all this “new” interest in the topic was simply a matter of time.

“I think what we’re seeing is a whole generation of scholarship in women’s issues and women’s studies all coming together now,” says Marsha Semmel, CEO of the Women of the West Museum. “You do the scholarship first, then you think, ‘How do we get that scholarship to the public?'” she says. “Museums are the most effective means of doing that.”

But is there enough support–financial and otherwise–for five more women’s museums?

Wages thinks so, and does not hesitate for a second with her answer. “You wouldn’t ask if there was enough funding for another art museum,” she says.

Melinda Rice is a Dallas-based free-lance writer.

Photo courtesy of The Women’s Museum: An Institute for the Future