An Interview with the Leaders of the National Women’s History Museum

nwhm

Two months ago, I wrote an article about the fight for a national museum celebrating the women of this country and their contributions to American history. The National Women’s History Museum (NWHM) is an institution based right outside of Washington, D.C that works towards the goal of making this museum a reality. Founded in 1996 by Karen Staser, NWHM believes that women are often forgotten in the retelling of American history and that the best way to rectify this problem is to create a physical museum in the nation’s capital dedicated solely to the accomplishments of women. While NWHM continues to work towards the creation of a museum, in the meantime, they work to educate the public on women’s history. As their mission statement clearly explains, “The National Women’s History Museum educates, inspires, empowers, and shapes the future by integrating women’s distinctive history into the culture and history of the United States.”

This past week, as National Women’s History Month was already underway, I had the opportunity to separately interview two of the leaders of NWHM—Joan Wages, the President and CEO and Susan Whiting, the Chair of the Board. The following is a transcript of those conversations:

Keren Neugroschl: Can you tell me about yourself and how you came to be involved with the National Women’s History Museum?

Joan Wages: I had been working on Capitol Hill on women’s issues and I heard about a project to move a statue from the basement of the Capitol building to the rotunda. That statue was of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott. The statue was carved after women got the right to vote [but] it was [then] moved to the basement. I didn’t know who these women were—except for Susan B. Anthony—but what irritated me was that Congress would not put a statue of women in the nation’s rotunda. So I got involved.

Susan Whiting: I live in Chicago but I spent 30 years working in New York with the Nielsen Company, the world’s largest marketing research company. I got very interested in my business career and mentoring men and women and also thinking about leadership and how having great role models can have a great impact in your life professionally. I had a good amount of exposure to what makes you successful and learning about role models to achieve and aspire.

Susan B. Anthony is one of my ancestors. I’m actually named after her, so we talked about her at home. There is a lot written about her, but there is not a lot written about some other women. I heard about the museum’s work to shine a light on all the incredible stories that women have all over the U.S. that we don’t know. Men and women, and boys and girls, should understand this because it will complete American History.

KN: What are your responsibilities in these leadership roles?

SW: [As Chair of the Board] my job is to make sure that you have the right leadership in the organization—the CEO and other leadership. I make sure that you have the right strategy and the right board that can support finding the right board members and that they have the right resources. I do outreach, interviews, and public speaking so that people know about the museum and what we’re trying to do.

JW: [As President and CEO] my job is to keep us moving towards our goal which is to establish a women’s history museum on or near the National Mall.

KN: Why is a women’s history museum necessary? Why do women need a separate museum?

SW: We really believe that America needs a national museum for women. [American history] is not a complete history without the contributions of women. A physical location where you have a permanent collection of exhibits will inspire everyone to understand what our contributions are. There is no single place like that in the U.S. or any nation’s capital. This would be a first and would inspire people. We know a lot about the impact and importance of role models but this would be one place that can be a hub for these conversations.

KN: What are the politics involved in building a physical women’s history museum?

JW: We worked with Congress to create a congressional commission and they came back with their report in November. They recommended that there should be a National Women’s History Museum and that it should be located in a prominent spot on our National Mall. They also recommended that we have a permanent collection of artifacts and possibly work with the Smithsonian Institution as far as borrowing artifacts. They came back with wonderful recommendations and our task now is to work with members of Congress who will develop legislation that will make the site available to build the national museum. The Mall is federal land and Congress with have to pass a bill to allow us to build there.

KN: Do you expect anything to change with the new administration?

JW: It’s probably too early to tell. We have had strong bipartisan support over all the years so we think that we will continue to have that support and every indication is that we will. The biggest challenge will be how to get the bill [designating land for the museum] passed. Congress can create hurdles so our biggest challenge will be just making sure that it gets passed.

SW: A group of supporters have been at this for quite a while. We have worked with a bipartisan list of members of Congress throughout [the past 20 years.] We have bipartisan support while we are working on congressional legislation to designate a spot. We will work with both sides of the aisle and whoever is in charge. It is the same story with many of the other museums that have been built. The process does take a number of years. The 100th year of women getting the vote is in 2020 so we are hoping to get a lot of interest over the next couple of years on the museum.

KN: How has the current political climate affected the museum?

JW: Current politics has brought attention to women’s issues. Specifically, for the Women’s March and Women’s March for Life, women have come out to express themselves and be heard and many are not stopping there. They are going back and becoming active in whatever cause that they feel passionate about. I think that we are seeing interest being expressed for the museum. We are thrilled about that and playing a role to help guide that energy towards a direction that would be positive for all women. I think that we will see this momentum continue to grow.

KN: What is a practical timeline for the building of the museum?

JW: With the wind to our back we may be able to pass the legislation in this Congress within the next two years. Then we would start the process of raising money and developing the museum and architectural plans. Realistically, it will be another 7-9 years.

KN: Where does the museum hope to get the money to build the physical building?

JW: We have put together a very substantial fundraising team at this point and we are doing some digital fundraising—similar to what was done in the Bernie and Obama campaigns. We are also doing traditional fundraising like other museums do. As we pick up momentum and as Congress allocates our site, the fundraising will grow in momentum and we will take on more people to our fundraising team. It takes a large team to raise the money.

KN: Does NWHM have any unique initiatives for Women’s History Month?

JW: Women’s History Month is our time to shine. We are launching an online exhibit this month that celebrates 100 years of women in Congress. This is the 100th anniversary of the election of Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to serve in Congress. It looks at the milestones of women in Congress and how they have grown in stature and in number. We have a number of speaking engagements with different organizations where we will be talking about the museum.

 

On social media we will be highlighting various aspects of women’s history throughout the month. Women started hundreds of years ago only being in the private sphere and they moved out to the public sphere but it has been in less than 100 years that they’ve moved to business and professional positions and women have such an amazing history.

 

[For example,] Hedy Green was an investor who inherited $6 million in the 1880s and grew it to over $100 million. The media referred to her as the witch of Wall Street because she wore all black all the time, but she grew this immense fortune for this time period. We know about the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers and the Carnegies but we don’t know about Hedy Green. This is just one out of the hundreds of stories that we can come up with that show that women have had a knack for business and have succeeded in many cases in making a substantial fortune and yet women have had a difficult time becoming CEOs and there is still a glass ceiling. But there is a rich history and that is one of the reasons that we need to show girls and boys, men and women, that we do have a rich history.

KN: Can you tell me about the online exhibits and educational tools that NWHM offers throughout the year?

SW: We have a very popular website that contains materials for teachers and biographies of women. We have over 300 biographies and new ones are going up all the time—some of whom you will know and many that people are unaware of. We also have special exhibits on different topics that are used each year by educators to build programs for students in school. I love reading the comments from people who read the biographies. The “wow, I didn’t know that” is the exact reaction that we want.  

KN: What other projects has the museum spearheaded?

SW: The National Women’s History Museum was started by a group of women who raised the funds to move the suffragette statue [of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott] from the basement to the Capitol rotunda. It was 20 years ago in May. That was a big project and that initiated the group that became the National Women’s History Museum. They raised the funds privately to move the statue to its proper place. We also hold events—for example in Washington and Los Angeles—each year where we honor women making history. We find fun and interesting ways that women’s stories are told. We have programs with universities, mainly walking tours, providing biographies and information for education.

KN: How does NWHM raise awareness about the museum?

JW: Social media is a way for us to build enthusiasm. We are raising awareness by helping people understand the roles that women have played and things that women have done. Women’s history is missing from today’s textbooks. It is missing from our national storyline. The only way that girls and boys or men and women are going to hear these stories is if an organization like the museum works to the get the information out. The museum is a central place where the stories will be collected and kept and we will keep a record of the role that women play.

It is important for young women to know about these women from history so that they can have bigger dreams and loftier goals and so that they do not think that they have to recreate the wheel. One of our scholars said that every generation, women have to recreate the wheel because they don’t know about the women before them. We want to make it possible that you can say—they came this far and now we can shoot for a higher goal.

Anyone interested in learning more about the National Women’s History Museum and the work that they are doing can visit their website at www.womenshistory.org, sign up for their newsletter, or follow them on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.