Meet the Woman Fighting for the National Women's History Museum

We spoke to Joan Wages on why we need monuments and museums dedicated to women's history, and what it's going to take to get there.

May 9, 2012 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

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Wages with Annie Leibovitz.

The Huffington Post swung a rusty hatchet at the National Women's History Museum earlier this month, with a piece titled "National Women's History Museum Makes Little Progress After 16 Years." The "investigation" called the NWHM "project rife with apparent conflicts of interest, sloppy recordkeeping, murky objectives and a stubborn resistance to outside oversight."

If you didn't know that there was a woman's history museum effort, president and CEO Joan Wages would like to enlighten you, and get you involved. Founded in 1996, the NWHM is finding its own footing along the winding path toward establishing itself among the other historical institutions in our nation's capitol. Thanks to high-profile donors and advocates such as Meryl Streep, they're closer than ever to reaching their goal.

But the critics have skimmed past (or outright ignored) many of the facts willingly provided by Joan Wages, who then rebounded from the hit-job with a thorough rebuttal on the Museum's website.

The HuffPo swung yet again the following week, smirkily announcing that in the days since their attack, Wages had already begun searching for a new Director of Education -- only to have to issue a correction mid-smirk conceding that their unnamed source had been misinformed, and that the job listing had actually been circulating since February. (The NWHM's official response to this error was deliciously succinct: "Thank you to the HuffPo for posting our job opening announcement.")

Wages has surely seen too many seasons in Washington D.C. -- as a lobbyist on Capitol Hill, and as the president of a political consulting firm -- to be surprised or impeded by petty jabs such as these.

I spoke to Joan about the plans for this much, much needed representation of women in the marble on the mall. While we still may be years away from being able to visit an actual bricks-and-mortar NWHM, in this interview, she reminds us that there is plenty for us all to see, do, and consider in the meantime.

I've noticed that when people are asked to name historical women that inspire them, some have very thoughtful or personal answers, but many grow self-conscious and try to think of the "right" answer (and most of these end up mentioning Eleanor Roosevelt). People seem to sense the subject is somewhat political, and that their answer reflects on them in a way that it wouldn't if you asked about historical figures in general. Do you encounter a lot of diversity in people's answers to these questions?

Well, I haven't put it together like you did, which I think is a very interesting observation. One of the things we often run into here is that so many women in Washington are very active and very involved in the city and in politics, and so when we meet them and tell them that we're working on a National Women's History Museum, it's almost like there's a flash of anger that, number one, there isn't already one; and number two, why didn't they know there wasn't one?

The minute that we start talking about women's history missing from textbooks, and from our national parks, and our National Mall -- it's missing -- women get it. Just immediately. And some do have a story about women mentors -- sometimes outside their family, but more often the mothers, the grandmothers, somebody close who was a big supporter of them.

So, it's an interesting mix of responses, and I think that it's a different mix from what other [historical organizations] have gotten -- because women's lives are all so different. Periodically we'll meet with someone and they'll tell us something that's happened at their organization, something that we can expect. And afterward, we go, "...But, it will be different, because we're women." It's an interesting experience, because it's looking at establishing this museum through a whole different lens.

Tell me about the challenge of building an environment that is welcoming and inclusive to all, but also has a truly challenging educational mission. For example, not only Jewish people visit the National Holocaust Museum -- it's also people who are purely just interested in learning about the Holocaust.

The Holocaust Museum is a great example. They really deal with issues of conscience, and there may well be a time in this museum's program when we look at these challenges set up by gender equality and those types of issues. Part of our mission statement is that we have men and women at the table, discussing equality and partnership. So I think that one could foresee that there would be discussions and programs, if not exhibits, built around issues like that.

After all this envisioning, which part are you personally most excited to see come to life?

I'm excited about many parts of it, I don't think there's a particular part or exhibit that I want to see happen. What I've found in working on this museum is that I'm constantly amazed by the information that we bring to the forefront, like in our online exhibits. For example, one of these is on women in film, and what struck me about this one was that the early movie theaters were built much like opera houses, so that women felt safe in that environment ... this was at the very beginning of the film industry, and they knew they had to appeal to women. Have you ever been in these old movie theaters that were so ornate, and you go, "Why in the world did they do this?" That was the reason.

Interesting. I imagine if you know you're going to have men and women sitting together in the dark, then you'd better make sure it seems like a pretty classy place...

Exactly! And this was right at the beginning -- we're talking about the late 1800s -- so women were just starting to move to some urban areas, some of them were starting to work, and for the first time women weren't living in the family unit, but with other women, and they were starting to have some money of their own, and had some free time. So it was very important that the film industry provide a safe place for these women to go. It's things like that that make you go, "Oh my goodness, who would have ever thought?"

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The women's suffrage statue.


True, it's so embedded into our view of the way things are in the present that you have no idea that there might be any sort of gendered influence in its origin.

Yes. And I am constantly learning things like that. With nearly every big exhibit that we put up, there is some new "aha!" moment for me. So I just look forward to cutting that ribbon and opening the doors and having other people come in and learn about women's history.

It sounds like this Museum would could generate some really interesting programs for children. Do you have any plans along these lines?

We don't have it all outlined just yet, but we are doing some programming that we hope will appeal to younger women, even in their teens. We do have some lesson plans online that are geared for teachers to use with the younger ones.

I've read a lot about your background working as a lobbyist for the Flight Attendant union; I am always really fascinated by people's earlier roles and how they wind up preparing them for what happens later in life. What experiences from your past jobs do you draw from the most in all this organizational work?

Every skill I've ever developed has been drawn on. [Laughs] It's a very demanding job! But I had wonderful experiences representing the flight attendants, because I worked on Capitol Hill on many issues affecting women. So I've developed a great understanding of what these issues are, and what the challenges on Capitol Hill are, and I think that's been immensely helpful. I could go all the way back to being a business minor in college -- the few accounting classes I took definitely have been helpful in understanding the financial aspects of the museum, and my background in mathematics. So, everything!

I know it's impossible to say right now, but how far off do you think we are from getting to visit an actual museum?

We are probably seven years from that cutting of the ribbon. And that is assuming that we can get the legislation passed, and then we'll be going through getting permits and all the things you have to do in Washington to build a museum. So we're a ways off, but we do have hopes of having the ribbon cut by August 26th of 2020, which is 100 years to the day of women getting the vote.

How can people get involved even if they're not in DC?

They can let their members of Congress know that they support this effort for a NWHM and they want their members of Congress to support it as well. Carolyn Maloney there in New York is our our House bill sponsor, and she's been absolutely amazing and stalwart, and is determined beyond determined to help us make this happen. I'm sure she'd love to hear from people in her district saying "Hurray for you!" And in the meantime people can become a member of our museum. Both of those would be helpful.