By James Cullum (Photo/James Cullum)
American history has been largely written and defined by men, but that’s only a part of the story. After 21 years of advocacy, the National Women’s History Museum is still looking for a home in Washington, D.C., and nine of those years have been spent trying to drum up support in Congress from the museum nonprofit organization’s small office on South Whiting Street in Alexandria’s West End.
Museum president Joan Wages said she never thought it would take so long for her dream to come true.
“The National Museum of African American History and Culture was in the works for 100 years. The Holocaust Museum took about 25 years from beginning until the ribbon cutting. It takes a long time,” Wages said. “But women are definitely missing from most of the museums on the National Mall. The American History Museum has a few exhibits, like the first lady’s dresses, but — you know — we’re more than a dress.”
The museum effort has toned down its celebrity endorsements in recent years, including support from actress Meryl Streep, who was at one time its national spokeswoman and recently has been publicly criticized by President Donald Trump.
“We want to come off as bipartisan, which can be difficult with celebrity endorsements,” Wages said. “We’ve got a Republican House, a Republican Senate and a Republican White House, and there are some celebrity names that simply will not help us.”
Trump’s election last November came at a pivotal moment in American women’s history, as he defeated Hillary Clinton, the first-ever female presidential candidate. And Trump’s campaign manager was Kellyanne Conway, the first woman to ever manage a presidential campaign and win. Wages did not participate in the Women’s March on Washington on the day after Trump’s inauguration, although members of her staff attended, she said.
“We are not about making history, we are about recording the history that is being made,” she said. “I think, like so many people, that Trump’s election was a shock. … And I think people don’t know where this is going with Trump. “There’s a lot of uncertainty, and as Congress works through the budget and other legislation, we’ll have a better sense of how we can position ourselves. In some ways, it doesn’t make it many less difficult, because Congress has been so tight with monies for so long, particularly with us.”\
Trying to raise money for a museum that doesn’t yet have a permanent location is difficult, Wages said. “We’ve said $250 million, but the truth is you can’t know until you know what plot of land you’ve got, how much space you’re going to build on — 250,000 square feet or 100,000 square feet,” she said. “We have not started raising any funds for a capital campaign, because we don’t have the plot of land.
“You can’t go to somebody and say, ‘Write me a check for $10 million for a museum we hope to have one day.’ You’ve got to be able to say, ‘Here’s the plot of land, here’s where it’s going to be. Now write a check.”
In November, a bipartisan congressional commission released a report outlining recommendations for the museum, including that it should join the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, offered potential locations and fundraising projections and said it should include a permanent collection of artifacts borrowed from the Smithsonian and other museums.
“America needs and deserves a physical national museum dedicated to showcasing the historical experiences and impact of women in this country,” according to the report. “The future museum should be called the American Museum of Women’s History.”
The commission, which was funded through $1 million raised by Wages and her staff, recommended a 10-year phase forward for the project and outlined three potential locations: open properties near the National Museum of African American History and Culture, on the northeast side of the U.S. Capitol grounds and the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries building, should Congress choose to halt plans for the future Smithsonian Latino American museum.
U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) recently drafted a bill that would bring the museum into the Smithsonian fold.
“We have museums dedicated to flight, postage stamps, law enforcement and many other important people and issues of interest, but not to women,” Maloney said on her website. “A National Women’s History Museum would provide women, comprising 53 percent of our population, a long overdue home on our National Mall to honor their many contributions that are the very fabric of our country.”
But with potential cuts to the Department of the Interior, from which the Smithsonian gets its funding, Wages’ organization is prepared to raise hundreds of millions of dollars on its own — as soon as there is a designated location. The NWHM recently hired three fundraising firms, including Revolution Messaging, which raised hundreds of millions of dollars for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) 2016 Democratic presidential campaign.
“The [Smithsonian’s] National Air and Space Museum is going to undergo a $700 million renovation,” Wages said. “They have a large number — in the billions — in facility repairs that are needed in all of the Smithsonian museums, so the [Smithsonian] secretary tells us that he loves the idea of a museum, but that the department can’t afford it at this time.
“We are prepared to help privately raise the money, so this is a bipartisan issue that both sides of the aisle can support, and this may end up being the ideal time for this to pass. I mean, one just never knows with Congress how the wind is going to blow. It would look really good, though, for Republicans to support an issue around women, and it would look good for Democrats to support a museum that would cost them very little.”
Wages said her role will end when the museum finds a home.
“I’m not a historian. The museum will need someone with the academic background that I don’t have. It will be the right time to step back,” she said. “Women have stood up throughout our history. And women will do it again. We will have a voice in where our nation is heading and will take the action needed to make the changes that need to be made. “Maybe the presidential election is a really good thing that has prompted women to show up at council meetings and political meetings. Women are accepting more responsibility for where our nation is heading.”