WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–The nation’s capital is a city of museums, showcasing the histories of everything from spaceflight to postal stamps, Native Americans to Holocaust survivors and victims.
But there is one glaring exception, according to Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat: a museum that highlights the contributions of women to U.S. history.
“We’re half the population!” Maloney railed earlier this month at an event in honor of Women’s History Month at the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum on Capitol Hill, the former home of suffragist Alice Paul. “Why can’t we get a museum of our own?”
Maloney and other lawmakers and activists have spent years pushing Congress to adopt legislation that would allow the National Women’s History Museum–which currently exists online only–to move into a vacant lot on Pennsylvania Avenue.
The effort has hit snags in previous Congresses, but activists hope this year will be different, thanks largely to the ascendance of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a vocal advocate of women’s rights who publicly acknowledges the role her predecessors played in helping her shatter what she refers to as the “marble ceiling” that has kept women out of the most powerful positions in government. On the day she was sworn into office in January, Pelosi wore purple, the symbolic color of the suffrage movement.
“We’re hopeful the change in the leadership would be positive for us,” said Susan Jollie, president of the National Women’s History Museum, a nonprofit group in Annandale, Va., devoted to recognizing and preserving women’s history. “I just think this counts a whole lot more to her than maybe to some of her predecessors in the leadership position.”
With a woman in charge of the House and more women in federal office than ever before, the composition of this Congress is far different from what it was in 1996, when the National Women’s History Museum took on its first challenge: moving a statue of three suffragists from the first floor of the U.S. Capitol Building to the Rotunda on the second floor.
What seemed like a fairly simple task turned into a monumental battle for women’s representation under the hallowed dome of democracy.
House lawmakers resisted the idea, asserting that the floor of the Rotunda could not bear the weight of the statue and that taxpayers would not support the cause, Maloney recalled in March at the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum event.
Statue backers hired an engineer to prove the floor would hold, raised private funds to pay for the move and persuaded the Speaker of the House–then Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich, a historian–to support their cause.
But the most shocking objection came from some House lawmakers who said the stone visages of Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were too ugly to receive the thousands of visitors who tour the Capitol Rotunda every day.
Women in Congress quickly shot down that argument, said former Rep. Pat Schroeder, a Colorado Democrat and one-time contender for her party’s presidential nomination. Abraham Lincoln “wasn’t a 10 and many of the other honored forefathers weren’t either,” she said she told her colleagues at the time. “We didn’t think this was a beauty contest.”
Schroeder, Maloney, members of the National Women’s History Museum and other activists eventually got their way, and in 1997 the statue was placed in the Capitol Rotunda. Since then, the museum group has turned its sights on what has proven to be even more daunting: getting congressional approval to lease a federally owned building in the nation’s capital to house a women’s history museum.
Two Bills to Propose Location
Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, introduced legislation in 2003 that directed the General Services Administration, a branch of the federal government that helps manage and support federal agencies, to enter into a long-term occupancy agreement with the museum group to develop an annex of the Old Post Office Building on Pennsylvania Avenue, in the stretch between the Capitol and the White House.
The bill sailed through the Senate in 2003–and again in 2005–but hit snags in the House of Representatives.
Key House Democrats balked because the bill would have prevented open bidding on the property, said Mary Kerr, a spokesperson for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has jurisdiction over the legislation.
Multiple individuals and organizations–including another women’s history group–have expressed interest in the property to the General Services Administration, she said.
“If it’s the women’s history museum, or anybody else, they just need to go through the regular procedures that all the other museums have gone through and complied with,” Kerr said. “Right now we’re waiting for action from the executive branch.”
Kevin Messner, an associate administrator at the General Services Administration, issued the following statement: “The administrator is supportive of efforts to establish a National Women’s History Museum and looks forward to working with Congress on this endeavor.”
Lawmakers are currently searching for ways to rewrite the legislation so that it eases the concerns of lawmakers and executive branch officials, Jollie said. A spokesperson for Collins said his boss intends to introduce new legislation later this year.
Administrator Supports Museum
In addition to Pelosi, activists see a potential ally in the new head of the General Services Administration, Lurita Doan. The first woman to hold the position, Doan expressed her support for the women’s history museum during Senate confirmation hearings last May.
“I have spent a lifetime in my professional career advocating on behalf of women because of the incredible role that women have played in the past in our country,” she said in response to a question from Collins. “I’d love to have my girls come to the opening of this museum.”
In the United States, museums devoted to women’s history are few and far between. Two notables are the Women’s Museum in Dallas and the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, N.Y.
But most other museums give short shrift to women’s history, Schroeder said. We need “to remind folks over half of the population really did contribute to building this country and weren’t just delivered in cruise ships where they were pampered and immediately put on pedestals upon arrival.”
The National Women’s History Museum attempts to tackle women’s history in its current online state. The Web site offers cyber exhibits on subjects ranging from female Olympians to women in industry to female spies. It also offers virtual walking tours, lesson plans and biographies of U.S. women. For Women’s History Month, it is sponsoring events such as a Washington, D.C., book discussion about Belva Lockwood, who in 1884 was the first woman to mount a national presidential campaign.
If the legislation for a bricks-and-mortar museum is approved, construction would take five to seven years to complete and would involve a $150 million fundraising campaign aimed at private donors, Jollie said.
The space would allow 100,000 square feet on three floors to be used for exhibitions, about the same amount of public space available at the new National Museum of the American Indian. The museum would also feature a research center, traveling exhibits and upgraded online exhibits.
Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.
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