Women’s historians told “you’re history” during Women’s History Month by the National Women’s History Museum

cowgirlcensoreddumbHow’s that for irony?  That’s what the Scholarly Advisory Council was told by the National Women’s History Museum’s President and CEO Joan Wages last month, according to former SAC member Sonya Michel.  (You can see the NMWH’s announcement of the SAC’s walking papers here.)  Michel, for those of you who don’t know her or her work, is an eminent scholar of gender, povery, and social welfare.  She writes:

Last month’s dismissal of the scholars followed yet another example of a museum offering that embarrassed those of us who were trying to ensure that the institution was adhering to the highest standards in our field. In mid-March, the museum announced that it had launched a new online exhibit, “Pathways to Equality: The U.S. Women’s Rights Movement Emerges,” in conjunction with the Google Cultural Institute. Never informed that the exhibit was in the works, much less given an opportunity to vet it, we were appalled to discover that it was riddled with historical errors and inaccuracies. To pick just one example: Harriet Beecher Stowe was described as having been “born into a family of abolitionists” when, from the time of her birth through her young adulthood in the 1830s, her family actively opposed the abolitionist movement. “Pathways to Equality,” noted Kathryn Kish Sklar, the nineteenth-century specialist who pointed out the error, “could have been written by a middle-school student.”

Actually, if I were Sklar, I would have said that “a middle-school student who had consulted my prizewinning biography of Catherine Beecher could have put together a stronger online presentation.”  But that’s just me, pretending to channel Sklar.  Michel continues:

Sklar’s reaction was hardly unique. With no actual historians on its staff and only scant communication with scholars, much of the museum’s public presence over the past few years—online, in print, and in the events it sponsors—had communicated what we considered to be an amateur, superficial, and inaccurate understanding of U.S. women’s history. Last summer, a group of the affiliated historians had written to Wages and the board of directors to outline our concerns and ask for greater engagement, with few results.

This latest instance of the museum’s feckless disregard for scholarly review prompted a number of the affiliated historians to conclude that we could not, in good faith, remain on the SAC. We realized that our presence there implied endorsement of the museum’s interpretation and presentation of women’s history, “when in fact we considered it to be neglectful of the diversity and vibrancy of recent scholarship,” as one of the group, Eileen Boris, Hull Professor and chair of Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, put it. Reluctantly, we began to draft a letter of public resignation. Before it was completed, however, Wages informed us she was dissolving the SAC.

So apparently scholars are important as window-dressing rubber-stampers to furnish the illusion of scholarly approval when you’re seeking Congressional approval, but not if they try to lend more than their names and affiliations.  Got it. In fact, Michel points out that a major problem with the NMWH, which has existed in almost complete secrecy as a fundraising organization since 1996 (!), is that “the NWHM had so little contact with the academic community that few women’s historians were even aware of its existence.”  Count me among the ignorant until yesterday afternoon!

Here’s the reason that Wages with her lobbyist/fundraiser’s mentality clashed with what actual American women’s historians think about women’s history.  Upon reviewing the museum’s prospective focus and sample materials,

The historians found the focus on “great women” and the acquisition of formal political rights to be outdated and much too narrow to capture the manifold ways in which women have shaped U.S. history. We were also dismayed to note that nearly all of the women pictured on the brochure were white, and several (Mary Wollstonecraft, Olympe de Gouges) not actually American. This sort of thinking about history typifies the NWHM style. Its approach is encapsulated in this statement on its website: “Women’s history isn’t meant to rewrite history. The objective is to promote scholarship and expand our knowledge of American history.” While most women’s historians would agree with the second part, we would disagree with the first. We have set out to rewrite history. 

Indeed, most of us long ago abandoned the “add-women-and-stir” approach to women’s history, whereby one simply attempted to find female parallels to prominent male figures and patterns of accomplishment. Instead, we have developed new categories to analyze American history through women’s eyes, such as how they used their own organizations to shape fundamental protections like mothers’ pensions and the Fair Labor Standards Act, how they reconfigured family life as part of the 19th-century modernizing process, and how their labor—paid and unpaid—has restructured the American economy. Our goal is to show the full diversity of women’s history without portraying it as a seamless path from corset and kitchen to boardroom and the halls of Congress.

Yeah, but the Whig story line–everyone in America is getting freer and freer, and everything is getting better and better!–is hella easier to sell to congresswomen and men.  Contributionism is intellectually vacuous and hopelessly out-of-date, but when it comes to women’s history, that’s all that most people (women and men alike) want to hear.  (N.B.:  I don’t have a problem with including non-Americans like Wollstonecraft and Gouges, who are after all central to any serious intellectual history of feminism.  But that’s probably because I’m not “really” an American historian, working as I do in the pre-1776 era and thinking a great deal about Canadians, First Nations people, and other North Americans who never lived in the United States.)

What strikes me as weird about this whole story is not that the NMWH as currently envisioned and led–for the past eighteen years!–came to blows with working scholars.  (This is an organization, after all, whose board members according to Michel can pay $25,000 to play.  True!)  What’s weird is that the NMWH, according to Michel’s account, is behaving as though it’s the first proposed historical museum in Washington, D.C.  Where is the Smithsonian Institution, which runs several historical museums?  What about having board members from the National Museum of the American Indian, the new African American museum, and the Holocaust Museum?  Balancing the interests of a number of stakeholders and goals–popular interest, scholarly rigor, private donations, and government support–is what museums do, after all.  Why is the leadership of NMWH acting as though no one has charted these waters before?  (I’m going on Michel’s account only here.)

cowgirlgunsign1All of these institutions have showed that you can incorporate modern scholarship into popular museum exhibitions.  To be sure, there have been some controversies (like the proposed exhibition of the Enola Gay at the National Air & Space Museum in 1995) that proved insurmountable, but there have also been tremendous successes like The West as America (1992) at the National Museum of American Art, and the Seeds of Change exhibition (1991-93) at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum, both of which addressed the longue duree consequences of the Columbian “discovery” of the Americas at its quincentennial.  I saw both of these exhibitions as a graduate student, and was enormously excited by the ways in which current scholarship was being interpreted and presented to a wider audience.  Were they ever consulted?  If not, why not?

Those of you who are real public historians especially should read Michel’s account and tell me what you think.  Others of you who have had contact with the NWHM board are also invited to chime in and tell me what you know.  Michel’s account sounds right to me, but I’m eager to hear other perspectives, too.

24 thoughts on “Women’s historians told “you’re history” during Women’s History Month by the National Women’s History Museum

  1. It’s the Catherine Reynolds School of Museum Building. Reynolds tried to create a “Hall of Fame of American Achievers” at the Smithsonian some time ago, pledging a lot of money but wanting to dictate the structure and content of the exhibitions. NMAH already has “Behring Center” attached to its name, and the exhibition entitled “The Price of Freedom” (against curators’ protests) was his doing.

    “The West as America” exhibition was widely denounced, especially after former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin raised a fuss. The late Ted Stevens of Alaska was pretty furious and threatened cuts to the Smithsonia.

    One of the larger issues here is the widespread tendency to conflate museums with monuments, halls of fame, and memorialization. Even the redesign of the National Museum of American History makes The Stars and Stripes such a centerpiece that it appears to be a sacred space.

    The Huffington Post article on the NWHM’s problems several years ago resulted in the museum reaching out to women’s historians. The NWHM website has now scrubbed the page awkwardly entitled “Scholars Assisting NWHM.”

    Now, after years of ignoring the issue, Eric Cantor is promising to bring the NWHM bill to a vote, and one sees in this move the Republicans’ desire to court women. Republicans may like the bill because it doesn’t include public dollars.

    Some interesting takes on the issue:

    The LA Times: “It’s that the Women’s History Museum is already slated to become yet another dull and didactic run-through of the potted history that has accompanied a zillion all-too-familiar narratives of women’s ‘progress.’”


    Rush Limbaugh was paraphrased in the National Journal: he “said about the possibility of women’s history museum this week, suggesting that women already have museums all across the country: shopping malls.”


    And here’s some information about the Tennessee Republican Congressperson cosponsoring the bill. The article begins “To maintain support from Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and other conservatives, a planned museum near the National Mall addressing women’s history likely will sidestep abortion rights and other controversial issues, some critics say”:



  2. Thanks for the linkies! I think I remember that Rush Limbaugh thingie, but had no idea that the NMWH was actually kind of a real thing.

    As to the West as America: yes, it pissed a lot of people off, but isn’t that the mark of a successfully provocative show? I know it also got a lot of rave reviews as well, and it certainly generated a lot of traffic for the museum.

    It all goes back to the temple/forum divide in how we think about museums, which you allude to (I think) in your comment about the old flag at the NMAH. Are museums–especially history museums–meant to enshrine sacred objects and tell a filiopietistic story about our national origins, or are they fora for conversations about what constitutes American history, and whose allowed to be in on the conversation? Unquestionably, I vote for the latter, but the problem with the NMWH is that it’s conceived of as a temple rather than a forum.


  3. That old “you can’t quit, we just fired you!!” trope is a hardy American perennial, I’m afraid. On some advisory boards, you’ve given the last advice you’ll ever be welcome to give when you advise the institution you’ll go on the letterhead. Mao Zedong fired his advisory board too when they took the legendary “let a hundred flowers bloom” aphorism to mean “even the ones that some people think look like weeds.”

    I’d buy Wollstonecraft as an “American” on grounds of her having entered into what one friend of hers called a “republican marriage” with an American expat in Paris, although I’d like to see the embassy file on that one if it exists. She also seemed to be looking to establish a brotherly beachhead in the U. States on the way to possibly launching a sisterly invasion of the Western Country. I bet there’s a fascinating exhibit to be done out there somewhere on the theme of “women who *almost* moved to America.”


  4. What is so sad is that this is representing women’s history when public history has in general has gotten so much more interesting.


  5. On Facebook, I asked the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites what they thought about this article, and they replied:

    “The NCWHS Board has not taken a formal position on the National Women’s History Museum, but various board members are deeply concerned that respected scholars in women’s history express reservations about the absence of serious commitment to historical scholarship. We share your admiration for this piece by Dr. Sonya Michel….”


  6. Good to hear from you, KC. I’ll put up a link to your post. I’m glad to hear that “various board members are deeply concerned. . . ” but that kind of formulation makes it sound like they’re honked off at the scholars, and not at the CEO’s and board’s leadership.

    Susan: I know, right? The planned museum is like something out of the 1940s.


  7. Here’s the link to Heather’s comments on the story. She has some interesting thoughts based on a recent conversation about contributionism (or “just add women and stir”) at the NCPH recently, as well as on the fundraising appeals from the NWHM:

    I read Michel’s article a month after attending an excellent session on “Gender: Just Add Women and Stir?” at the National Council on Public History meeting in Monterey. The session reported on a 2013 study trip to historic sites in and around Boston hosted by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. The participants in the study trip “were struck by the wide variety of ways they saw gender and sexuality interpreted — or in some cases, not interpreted at all.” The session discussed the question of “how do we move beyond the ‘just add women and stir’ model of gender interpretation?”

    It seems to me that the NWHM needs to ask the same question. Is having a women’s history museum on the Mall simply going to be a monument-size version of “just add women and stir” history? Right now, things don’t look good.

    A few years ago I agreed to be a “charter member” which involved a relatively modest donation. For now, though, I’m throwing their renewal invitations in the trash. I’m also taking the advice of Kristen Ann Ehrenberger who reported on the Women Historians of Medicine listserv, “I wrote to my Congresspersons as a historian, woman, and voter and urged them not to support HR 863 / SB 399 as currently written. I would like to see historians speak up for substance over donors so this does not become an example of simplistic, populist history overtaking the careful, nuanced work of actual scholars on American women.” This sounds like a fine idea to me.


  8. I think there is value for them in pretending to care about our opinions without making any specific commitment. I tagged you on a Tweet just now–the NWHM replied to the criticism they’ve received recently, but it’s weak tea (unsurprisingly.)


  9. HA-ha.

    Wages responds: “When we get to the point of discussing content of the museum we hope to partner with existing institutions like the Smithsonian and other world-class museums that have exemplary processes we could model to ensure the museum’s programs and exhibits are accurate, credible, relevant and communicated in ways easily understood by the general public.” When will that be? Maybe another EIGHTEEN YEARS from now?

    I like Michel’s response: “Wages warns against prejudging “the museum’s directors, curators and historians, by criticizing the content they haven’t even had a chance to develop,” but in fact the NWHM has had a chance to develop content. Its website is there for all to see what a museum operated by this organization would look like. The NWHM has fallen short not because it lacks resources but because it has failed to develop effective relationships with historians and museum professionals, many of whom have been more than willing to work with them on a voluntary basis.”

    This is what happens when you hire a lobbyist to put together a museum. Lobbyists lobby. Eighteen years is half a career. The NWHM has worked really well for Joan Wages and maybe a few staffers. How’s it working out for everyone else?


  10. A museum without scholars is not worthy of the name. The worst part is that the legislation reported out of the House Administration and Natural Resources committees (HR863) and under consideration in Senate Energy and Natural Resources (S.398) fail to create a working commission that CAN include scholars. It has only 8 members for only 18 months compared to 23 to 26 or even 60 members and 24-36 months for other museum commissions, it is excluded from the Federal Advisory Commission Act (open meeting and reporting rules), federal staff such as the Park Service are banned from being detailed to staff the commission, and there is no inclusion of women’s leaders or even any way to ensure that there is diversity or a balance of members. The granting of a spot on the National Mall for a private corporation is unheard — let’s not treat women and women’s history as second class citizens! Write your member of Congress and contact the bill sponsors, Representatives Carolyn Maloney and Marsha Blackburn and Senators Susan Collins and Barbara Mikulski and ask them to AMEND the bill to provide for a working commission of the same stature as the others.


  11. This reminds me of how “Renaissance Festivals” operate by asking a local professor or historian to sit on their board and advise whether medieval peoples ate turkey legs or not. A bird wholly unknown to Medieval Europe, they go ahead and sell turkey legs anyway. It’s all lip service and entertainment, reaffirming the public’s idealized view of the past and not anything accurate or engaging.


  12. Rachel, I hear you. Here’s a fun reenactor history fact: I used to work at a university at which the medieval historian regularly played Queen Elizabeth in the pageant in that state’s Renaissance Faire every year. Ha!


  13. I think there are some reenactors and public history sites that use historical reenactments to excellent effect. Plimoth Plantation is the preeminent example of this, I think–and Ann Marie Plane, now a historian at UCSB, was a reenactor there. But Plimoth Plantation’s main charge is education, not entertainment, whereas I think the equation is reversed in the commercial Ren Faire scene.

    I haven’t been to Colonial Williamsburg in years, but PP struck me as the more intellectually serious & less commercial venue. Then again, the story they have to tell–1627 in Plimoth, year after year–is a lot less complicated than the story CW has to tell. I think the limits on the story also puts limits on both the commercial possibilities as well as on the often difficult subjects that CW has to tackle. (That is, Plimouth is less marketable, and it’s also less controversial in that there are no Indian wars to tell of in 1627, as well as no slavery. CW on the other hand has a more complex & difficult story to tell, and it’s also more open to commercial exploitation.)


  14. I wish this we could just laugh at the silliness — and it is IS absurd that anyone could take seriously a museum without those who study women’s history. However, the public space on the National Mall is limited, and if it is granted to a private group without integrity, without historians, and yet says it represents women’s history, the problem is not just a museum that will fail without greater public support, or a museum that is ridiculed, it could be a museum that institutionalizes women’s lesser status without fidelity to history across the political spectrum. And unfortunately, it is being treated as a political football with Republicans saying they are supporting women and Democrats saying they will accept a women’s museum at any price. Most members of Congress think American women are ok with this — Herstoryhistory disagrees.


  15. To further explain my previous comment — I’m a relative newcomer to public history but two of the core principles are audience engagement and shared authority. So, who is the audience for the current virtual NWHM and it’s proposed bricks and mortar counterpart? How does/will NWHM engage this audience? Apparently much of the web exhibits are created by interns (who also post regularly to the museum’s various social media accounts). Who are these interns? What is their training? How did they get “hooked” on women’s history and how are they using their experiences to engage other audiences? How can historians tap into this enthusiasm? Should we allow our audience to be content generators? How do we institute quality control? And so on.


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