Recently, I toured Dumbarton Oaks, which is a research library and collection in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The collection and estate was donated to Harvard University by Robert and Mildred Bliss, collectors of art and artifacts from around the world. The Blisses were particularly fascinated with Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art, as well as gardening and landscape design. The Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Garden reflects these interests.
We toured two main exhibits at the Museum and then spent the majority of our visit enjoying the gardens.
One exhibit we viewed focused on textiles from Byzantine. Entitled “Ornament: Fragments of Byzantine Fashion,” it demonstrated the way that Byzantine garments were dismantled, with the ornamental sections of clothing cut away from the bulk of the garment which would have been plain or solid in color. These more ornamental fragments were sold by traders. The exhibit explores the themes in the designs commonly found on these Byzantine garments, and related objects.
The Museum’s display style was much more like that found in art museums or anthropology museums, rather than my area of expertise–history museums, and the Byzantine empire is far from the usual topics and time periods I study, but I enjoyed viewing these pieces, amazed by how well many of these textiles were preserved, several hundreds of years later. I was also interested to learn that researchers are able to gleam information about the people who wore these clothes from the stains and folds of these garments, which were removed from the burials of medieval Egyptians. They also speak to the aesthetics of the period.
Of more interest to me were the Pre-Columbian artifacts from Mexico and South America. This exhibit was in a beautiful array of circular areas and hallways with floor-length windows all around. These artifacts spoke to the religious and cultural life of the pre-conquest indigenous groups of Latin America.
Finally, we toured the gardens, which were designed by Beatrix Farrand, in consultation with Mildred Bliss. Beginning in 1921, the two women drew on their knowledge of European garden tradition in order to create the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks. The garden consists of a series of terraces. It was designed and evolved over 30 years with every single element carefully considered and chosen. Read more about Dumbarton Oaks Museum & Gardens at their website.
Women have always worked. But the nature of that work and where it took place has changed over time. In the United States, before the late 19th century, the majority of women’s work was domestic, but as economic and social changes took place, women began working outside of the home and in more varied roles.
I wrote about women’s work for a chapter of my master’s thesis. Below is a short excerpt from that chapter that explains the changes over time and gives details about women’s work including women-owned businesses. Since my thesis focused on the Wilmington area, it includes statistics and information from the Cape Fear region.
Many changes in women’s work took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One such change was in the demographic makeup of women entering the workforce. In 1890 more than 90 percent of women over the age of 35 were married. Before 1890, the “vast majority” of married women did not engage in paid labor, instead “contributing to the family economy in other ways.” After 1890 married women began to more frequently take jobs outside of the home. Women were having fewer children, resulting in fewer years spent in raising children. Technological advancements reduced and eased housework and made many goods previously produced in the home readily available for purchase. The reduction in family size and the new technology freed up time for many married women. Alice Kessler-Harris argued that these women, no longer spending much of their lifetimes birthing and raising children, “would need to find meaningful survival activity” and some, especially those who outlived their partners, “would need to support themselves by finding paid work outside the household.”
Kessler-Harris’s arguments points to two main reasons for women engaging in work outside of the home, for economic survival and for mental or emotional fulfillment. Since colonial times, single women, widows, and poor women were more likely to work for wages, needing to support themselves in absence of a husband or father or contribute to the earnings of a husband. However, with the changes in the home pointed out by Kessler-Harris, as well as changes in the 1920s resulting from women’s wartime work, the flapper movement of the 1920s, and women’s newly earned suffrage, the early twentieth century saw more women, married or otherwise, pursuing work for other reasons, including boredom, ambition, rebellion, and independence, as well as need. These motives, of course, differed by race and class.
By the mid-twentieth century, women held a larger variety of jobs, but still remained less represented in the workforce than men. These changes over the first decades of the twentieth century are also reflected in the census records. In 1940 there were still six times as many employed males as females in Brunswick County, but only about two times as many in New Hanover County. This is likely due to the city of Wilmington’s increased population and urban employment opportunities. In terms of women as business owners and employers, in 1940 there were nearly ten times as many male as female employers and own-account workers in Brunswick County and 11.5 times as many male employers as female in the state of North Carolina. However, there were only 2.7 times as many in New Hanover County, making New Hanover County unique in the state for its higher proportion of women employers at that time.
Women’s employment generally increased over the course of the twentieth century; however, their occupations were concentrated in certain fields, such as domestic service and professional occupations. Women’s dominance in domestic service and professional occupations in the Cape Fear Region mirrors larger trends in women’s work in the twentieth century. Domestic service was an especially predominant occupation for African American women. Tera Hunter found in her study of black women’s work from the Civil War through the early twentieth century that “more than 90 percent of black female wage-earners were still confined to domestic work at the turn of the century.” In the Cape Fear region, domestic workers were also majority African American, with domestic work being one of the few options for black women in the early twentieth century. As late as 1995 African American women still made up 63% of housekeepers, child care workers, and cleaners. In terms of professional occupations, Kessler-Harris found that “by 1920 a cadre of trained and eager women had carved out a series of professional areas, many of which were loosely construed as nurturing,” such as nursing and teaching. Cape Fear women’s large numbers in professional fields and domestic service fields represent larger trends in women’s growing presence in the paid labor force.
Beyond census records, another rich resource for contextualizing women’s work and roles in business is the city directories for Wilmington. These sources list local businesses as well as individuals and organizations. The city directories for the years 1900, 1905, 1909-10, 1915-16, 1919-20, 1930, 1934, 1940, 1944-45, and 1950, published by Hill Directory Company, revealed several trends in women’s work and were exceptionally helpful in gathering information about women-owned businesses. By focusing on the business listings rather than the personal listings, some trends in women’s businesses can be determined.
The most numerous occupations or businesses held by women from 1900 to 1950 were boarding houses, clothing retailers, bakers and confectioners, dressmakers, florists, grocers, music teachers, and nurses. Not only did these professions include large numbers of women, but they also largely excluded men, demonstrating the gender segregation of the workforce. Boarding houses were overwhelmingly one of the biggest businesses operated by women in Wilmington. The city directories revealed that in 1900 at least 21 women were listed as the proprietors of boarding houses. Of those 21, 19 were listed as “Mrs.” and only two were listed as “Miss,” indicating that boarding houses were predominantly operated by married or widowed women. In 1905 even more women were listed as boarding house owners with the number reaching 45. More than 40 women operated boarding houses in 1910. The number continued to remain relatively high at 11 in 1930 and 19 in 1940. However, in 1950 there were only two women listed as boarding house proprietors. This shift did not indicate an exodus from the profession though. Instead, 32 women were listed as the proprietors of “furnished rooms,” many of them the same women once listed as boarding house owners. Furnished rooms provided less amenities to lodgers, offering a room with either a hot plate or access to a shared kitchen where boarding houses had provided communal meals to their guests. Furnished rooms were thus less labor-intensive for landladies. The shift may have been caused by changes in women’s access to other occupations as well as changes in ideas of family privacy.
Other notable professions included dressmaking and millinery shops. For example, in 1950 there were twenty-eight dressmakers in Wilmington. Women also appeared increasingly in later years as stenographers, notaries, real estate and insurance agents, and other office-type jobs. There were a few notable instances of women working outside of “feminine” occupations, but alongside husbands. There was one lawyer, one physician (osteopath), and one chiropractor who fell into this category. Other trends in women’s work in the Cape Fear Region included teaching, nursing, and clerical work. By 1920, 80 percent of North Carolina’s teachers were women, the James Walker School of Nursing graduated more than 1,000 nurses between 1902 and 1970, and by 1940 15 percent of employed women worked in retail, clerical work, or service professional jobs. Textile mills were also leading employers of women in the region, including Delgado Cotton Mill.
As can be seen, many of the occupations or businesses that women engaged in used “traditional” domestic skills or catered to women clientele. Boarding house proprietors served as hostesses, managing a home and providing meals. Dressmakers made women’s clothing, reproducing the traditional women’s task of cloth production in the home, and producing goods for female consumers. These were considered acceptable, feminine professions and they attracted a largely female workforce. As Kessler-Harris found, “most women, even professionals, still found themselves in job categories that were heavily female.”
The ways in which businesses and individuals were denoted in the city directories also points to connections between race and gender when examining women’s work and businesses in the twentieth century. The city directories differentiated individuals and proprietors of businesses by race and further differentiated women by marital status. African-American individuals or businesses are denoted with an asterisk or the letter ‘c’ in parenthesis alongside their names. This action denotes the racial segregation at the time, and helps to provide some information about the differences in African-American and white women’s work.
African American women can predominantly be seen as the proprietors of eating houses and lunch rooms, as opposed to the separately named category of restaurants, a symptom of segregated establishments. African American women appeared much less often in other businesses such as boarding houses and as music teachers or nurses. African American women appeared as midwives where white women did not and are also among dressmakers and hairdressers. Personal listings in the city directories also revealed African American women to work often as washerwomen and seamstresses. African American women appeared frequently in separate businesses from white women. Black women were more likely to be listed as hairdressers, eating house proprietors, and midwives. The businesses that African American women engaged in in Wilmington were also popular in other cities across the South. Hunter found that women in Atlanta also operated restaurants, clothing stores, hairdressing shops, and worked as midwives. Midwifery was also one of the few professional occupations African American women were able to break into, following teaching and nursing. The differences in work of black and white women points to different gender expectations across race as well as different limitations in work opportunities.
 Joanne J. Meyerowitz, Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880-1930, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 1991, 73-75. Meyerowitz explores the changes in lodging of urban workers in Chicago around the turn of the twentieth century, offering some explanation of the differences between boarding houses and furnished rooms that can help explain the shift in Wilmington in the twentieth century.
Women’s Work A Century’s Worth: A Cape Fear Scrapbook.
Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. is an operating theater to this day, but historically it is best known as the site of Lincoln’s assassination. On April 14, 1865, while Lincoln was attending a play at Ford’s Theater with his wife and Major Henry Rathbone, John Wilkes Booth, an actor and Confederate spy, shot Lincoln in the back of the head. He died 9 hours later on April 15, 1865 of his injuries across the street at the Petersen House.
This moment in history, just after Lee’s surrender and the ending of the Civil War, but just before Reconstruction, was a pivotal junction.
The tour of Ford’s Theater which includes self-guided tours of exhibits, a ranger talk in the theater, and partially guided tours of the Peterson house, does a wonderful job of contextualizing both Lincoln and Booth as well as providing the context of what Washington, D.C. was like in 1865. All of this context helps the audience to better understand how the assassination was able to take place and why Booth targeted Lincoln.
Before entering the actual theater, we toured exhibits that presented Lincoln’s Washington. These exhibits showed what D.C. was like in the 1860s, gave context about the Civil War, Lincoln’s stance on slavery, the war, and reconstruction. The exhibits also gave background on John Wilkes Booth, his political leanings, his acting career, and more. The exhibits lead up to the night of the assassination and include on display the gun used to kill Lincoln.
The next stop was the theater itself where a ranger (since the site is a National Park) walks the audience through the series of events leading up to and immediately after Lincoln was shot. Again, the information provided is clear and does an excellent job of contextualizing the event and not sensationalizing it.
The tour follows the series of events, leaving the theater and crossing the street, just as Lincoln’s body did that night, to the Petersen House where the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination is described including Mary Todd Lincoln’s reaction, Lincoln’s death, the succession of power, and Lincoln’s funeral procession. More exhibits then detail Lincoln’s legacy and the many ways he has continued to inspire people through the present.
I highly recommend visiting Ford’s Theater and doing the full tour including the museum exhibits, the theater talk, and the Petersen House across the street. Tickets are $3.00 but are timed and it’s recommended to reserve them in advance.
The National Museum of African American History & Culture is one of those museums that pulls you in and keeps pulling you in. From the outside, it stands out, strikingly different from all of the other museums, monuments, and buildings on the National Mall, creating a welcome visual focal point. Entering feels like going into a sacred space. The museum is chock full of artifacts that bring stories to life. It was one of my favorite museum experiences ever (and I’ve had a lot). Many have written about why this museum is important and how it came to be. Below is my experience visiting the museum as a white museum professional. It did not disappoint on a professional or personal level and all of its hype is well deserved.
Note on Tickets & Logistics
When my husband and I began planning our trip to DC to visit my brother, one of the first things decided on (after the concert that sparked the conversation) was that I had to go to the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). The NMAAHC opened in 2016 to lots of interest, high visitation, and big impact on not only the world of public history & museums, but on so many individuals. I had heard so much good buzz about the museum but hadn’t been able to visit yet so it was high priority on our list.
We knew advance tickets would probably be necessary and we planned to go on the Friday of our trip to help cut down on weekend crowding, but I misunderstood the ticket release system and we missed our opportunity to get advance tickets! 😦 The other option was to try and get day of tickets first thing in the morning when they would be released for the day, but after arriving in DC in the wee hours of the morning we missed that opportunity as well. Walk-ins (without advance tickets) are allowed after 1 pm.
Worried that we would be standing in long lines and concerned about the chances of maybe not being able to get in at all, we decided to spend the morning at the National Air & Space Museum (you can read about our visit here) and then go to the NMAAHC after lunch (we ate in the Pavilion Cafe in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden which you can read about here). Because of hiding out from rain and how busy the Pavilion Cafe was we didn’t get to the NMAAHC until about 2:00pm on a Friday in April. There was absolutely no line and we were able to go right in and get started. The museum was plenty busy but not overcrowded and we were able to maneuver through exhibits with minimal waiting and crowding. The NMAAHC has changed its ticketing policy already in its 3 years and likely will continue to adjust so if you plan to go, check out their website for the latest. We lucked out on being able to easily get in without waiting, but I would still recommend the advance ticketing system so you can get in in the morning and have more time to view the museum. I have to go back as we only grazed the surface of this museum’s impressive exhibits!
Upon entering, we picked up a map which advised that in order to make the most of your time (and we were already limited on time having gotten there in the afternoon) you should start at the top and work your way down. We didn’t realize until later that this meant we would miss the museum’s main history exhibits which traces African American history from slavery through the present. These history exhibits are all below ground (where 60% of the museum lies). Where we began was with the museum’s culture exhibits which all come off of a central area called Cultural Expressions. This circular area is so immersive with exhibits around the outside, seating in the middle, and large screens encircling above head with images, video and quotes about various forms of cultural expression including writing, music, dance, sport, film, etc. featuring famous or trailblazing African Americans in their respective fields. We began with the exhibit about music.
The music exhibit was full of information and artifacts about African American musicians and singers who have made lasting cultural impressions in American popular and musical culture. Jimi Hendrix, Ella Fitzgerald, Celia Cruz, Whitney Houston, James Brown, Louis Armstrong, and more well-known artists were represented, but so were lesser-known names and contributions to American music including black country and bluegrass artists. The exhibit included an interactive “record store” room in which you could flip through “albums” and learn more about artists and select music on a digital touch screen. It was a rich visual experience with so much to take in.
The next exhibit was all about acting, from the stage to the screen. The final exhibit we toured in full was about sports. All of these exhibits showcased the cultural contributions of African Americans to American culture, highlighting inequalities overcome, civil rights advanced, and culture enriched. Black history and culture is American history and culture and these exhibits make that clear by focusing on how African Americans have been a part of it all by focusing on these overarching categories of music, film, sport, relatable categories for people of all backgrounds.
I wish we could have stayed longer but tired brains and feet won out. We skipped the rest of the regular exhibits in favor of checking out the educational area which has a large digital, interactive kiosk of touch screens from which you can browse the museum’s collection. You can select items based on a wide variety of intersectional topics. This was a truly impressive digital resource that had information on so many artifacts both on exhibit and not.
I can’t wait to return to this museum and tour more of the exhibits. The importance of this museum for celebrating African American history and culture, for educating the public on the history of systemic racism, for educating the public on the history of black Americans, and for showcasing the important role African Americans have and continue to play in the development of culture in America cannot be overstated. I highly recommend visiting, taking your time, and taking it all in.
Over the next 19 weeks, the US National Archives is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote. On June 4, 1919, Congress voted to pass the amendment which would then go to the states for ratification before becoming law of the land in 1920. Each Wednesday is a different theme or topic. Today’s is Hidden Heroines.
I did a lot of brainstorming and soul searching trying to decide which woman from the past, who is often overlooked, I should devote my attention to. Because of the anniversary of women’s suffrage I thought of Lucy Burns, the suffragist who endured prison, forced feedings, and more in the fight for women’s right to vote. I thought of Lucretia Mott, a major driving force in both women’s rights activism and abolitionism. Of Iba B. Wells, a major figure in civil rights, co-founder of the NAACP, and women’s rights activist, often left out of the circles of white women’s rights activists. I thought of Mamie Till, the mother of Emmett Till, the young black boy who was murdered for talking to a white woman. This grieving mother boldly and bravely insisted her son’s coffin be left open for the world to see what had been done to him and allowed media to use graphic images of her son’s beaten body in order to advance civil rights, using her grief and her son’s tragically short life to affect change for others.
I thought of these and many other women, but I couldn’t decide on one woman to highlight or profile. One “hidden heroine.” There are so many women whose stories aren’t well known. Or aren’t as well known as other women’s stories. But they are all worth telling.
I decided instead to write about why women’s stories are hidden, less well-known than their male counterparts, and why some women’s stories are less told than others.
Why Are Our Heroines Hidden?
Issue 1: Sexism – Women were (& are) not offered the same opportunities as men. Speaking of history generally, women had less access to formal education and therefore more difficulties in achieving goals in academic fields and research. Legal restrictions on women’s right to vote, to own property, etc. kept them from enacting change. Societal expectations have kept many women in the home as wives and mothers, relegating them to domestic work. The field of history has traditionally been dominated by male academics. Prior to the wave of social history that swept through the academy in the 1970s and 80s, many historians focused on major public figures (historically predominantly male due to the restrictions on women mentioned above), military and state history. Social history began looking at history “from below” and taking into account minority voices, ordinary people, and the lived experience of people from many walks of life. But for years and still today, textbooks largely stick to the national narrative which prioritizes state and military history–domains traditionally and at times legally reserved for men.
Issue 2: Racism – Women of color have been doubly restricted from aspects of public life, facing racism and sexism simultaneously. Their stories are even harder to find and have more often not been preserved.
Issue 3: Sources – Despite the above limitations women still led lives of importance, of interest, and of value. Of course some women made notable, public achievements in the face of discrimination, but even more women were hidden heroines, living in their own space, making an impact on the lives around them, much as many of us live today. Their stories are worth studying as it illuminates what daily life was like for the majority of people in any given historical era, not just those who held power or made public strides. It is the actions of the populace that move culture and society, not just those of great men or great women. These women’s lives are harder to uncover though since fewer written historical sources were made by women and even fewer have been saved. Women’s identities are sometimes obscured by the tradition of naming them only as Mrs. Husband’s Name in public sources. Women who lived in eras where they participated minimally in public life will have less written sources left behind than men in the same era. African American women during slavery will be even more difficult to find in the records than white women.
Issue 4: Interpretation/Public History – Strides are being made in this regard all the time, but the study of women’s history needs to go beyond the academy. Historians are increasingly studying women’s and minorities’ lives, but these findings need to be disseminated to the public via history classes and museums. The public is interested in the past and wants to know how it relates to them. This has been shown in studies, in the popularity of popular historical dramas, and other media. Half the population are women and so half of what’s included in museums should be about women. If I visit one more house museum that talks more about the crown molding than the life of the woman who lived there…but I digress. More public interpretation of women’s history, both notable women and ordinary lives, can help bring these stories forward and integrate them better into our national narrative.
This Instagram Challenge is one of many initiatives encouraging the study and interpretation of women’s history and many museums and historic sites will be taking part, highlighting their own women’s history and making connections to the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote. Be sure to follow along and let them know you are interested in these women’s stories.
Over the next 19 weeks I plan to take part in the Instagram challenge each week and will do my best to highlight a woman or women who fit the theme that is lesser known, particularly women of color. Let me know if you know of a woman you’d like me to research and highlight.
Why else do you think women’s stories remain hidden? Who is your favorite “Hidden Heroine?”
Follow along with the Instagram challenge from @usnatarchives #19forthe19th and check out my posts @bethnevarezhistory.
On the hunt for a convenient, quick, and close-by lunch spot between our visits to the National Air & Space Museum and the National Museum of African American History & Culture, we wandered into the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden on our way to the Pavilion Cafe. With bad weather looming, we made our way around the fountain, lingered just a bit at a few of the statues and went inside just in time. It started raining while we were in line to order.
In our quick visit though I took a few photos and have since done some research on one of the artist’s whose work in the sculpture garden stood out to me. Titled Puellae (Girls), the collection of bronze, headless figurines standing amidst trees, was haunting. In search of the meaning behind these figures I quickly Googled but the first page that came up offered nothing beyond the fact that the figures were bronze, made in 1982, and were indeed at the National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden (thanks Google/Wikipedia). A friendly security guard passed by just as I declared my internet search of no use and told us that the statues were inspired by a story the artist had heard during World War II of a transport of girls from Poland to Germany who all died from exposure to the cold in the cattle cars used to move them.
The artist is Magdalena Abakanowicz who grew up in Poland. She was 9 years old when Nazi Germany invaded and she grew up outside of Warsaw, and after the war, lived under Soviet control. She went to art school and began her career in a the climate of Soviet rigid conservatism. Artists were only allowed to create art in one style–Socialist realism. As she moved through her career as an artist those restrictions were lifted. Abakanowicz is known for working with textiles and for several humanoid sculptures like those at the National Portrait Gallery. Drawing on her experience of World War II and its aftermath, she is “best known for her “crowds” (as she calls them) of headless, rigidly posed figures whose anonymity and multiplicity have been regarded as the artist’s personal response to totalitarianism.” (National Gallery of Art website)
I am not personally terribly interested or good at art. I often don’t “get” it. But when art is used to represent history or the past, I am better able to understand. I wish this sort of background information was included on art gallery labels, but I suppose sometimes the art is meant to speak for itself and be open to interpretation. I prefer knowing the inspiration myself. With the background of this sculpture, I see more than creepy headless figures and instead see the atrocities of war and how such large scale inhumanity creates so many anonymous victims.
Public art is often cited as one way to better highlight history of places, especially when original structures no longer stand. What do you think about using art to tell history?
In the field of public history, the interpretation of women’s history has become a hot topic with increasing attention and emphasis being placed on including women’s perspectives in museum exhibits and other public history initiatives. This post is a literature review and essay on how women’s history has historically been presented via museums and historic sites. Women’s history should be more fully explored in all of its diversity and possibility at museums and historic sites of all types, especially in view of women’s historic and continued impact on the field of public history, with museums especially often considered a pink collar profession.
Social History’s Influence
Both public and women’s history as disciplines developed around the same time as social history, which began calling for the inclusion of marginalized histories like those of women, as well as racial minorities. Influenced by the social history movement of the 1970s and 80s, as well as the urgings of female staff at museums and sites, public interpretation at historic sites and museums has increasingly incorporated women’s history. Even more recently, the fields of preservation and museums have pushed for progressively critical and analytical interpretations that move beyond simply adding the biographies of ‘great’ women to go alongside those of ‘great men,’ emphasizing the potential of making the history of all women more visible through the use of tangible resources.
Despite continued appeals over three decades, and a general increase in representation, there is still a need for more integration and better interpretation of women’s history at sites and museums. However, museums and preservation professionals have each identified different areas of women’s lives that are most in need of better interpretation. Museum professionals write that too much emphasis has been put on women’s public roles, while preservationists and those involved with historic sites push for more interpretation of women’s lives outside of the home, feeling that the domestic sphere is over-interpreted through the prevalence of house museums.
This interesting dichotomy may be the result of differences in the development of the two fields, the availability of the material culture used at each type of institution or issues of funding and sponsorship.
Women’s History in Museums
Edith Mayo’s 1983 article, “Women’s History and Public History: The Museum Connection,” was written only 5 years after public history, as a newly established self-identified field, published its own journal and is one of the earliest calls for increased representation of women’s history via public history. Mayo provides an overview of the field of public history and its divergence from academic history in order to explain why women’s history had not been heavily incorporated into public history at that time. Arguing that public history and academic history separated due to increased specialization in training for academics and the propensity for academics to then see those who worked in preservation or museums as amateurs or antiquarians, Mayo then points out that women, who originally spearheaded preservation movements, were usually not trained historians. When the field of preservation began to professionalize, this lack of training began to phase out women from public history.
Mayo traces women’s involvement in public history back to the preservation movement of the nineteenth century in which women in their role as “culture bearer and preserver” led movements to save the houses of great men, including, most famously, Mount Vernon. By giving an introduction to women’s historic involvement in the field of public history, Mayo points out the irony that women’s history is “still largely neglected by public historians.” Women’s history’s growing popularity in the academy as well as women’s traditional role as preservers of culture and history point to the need for more interpretation of women’s history in museums and historic sites.
Ultimately, museums should be a vehicle that brings women’s history from the academy to the public and should continue to respond to the increase in women’s history scholarship by incorporating interpretation of women into their exhibits and programs.
However, mere incorporation and inclusion is not enough as it needs to be balanced in order to present an accurate picture of women’s lived experiences. In the past, women’s history in museums has been focused on presenting “notable” women to go alongside the stories of noteworthy men.
Barbara Melosh’s “Speaking of Women: Museum’s Representations of Women’s History” finds that museums have had more success at interpreting women’s public roles, such as political achievements and labor roles outside the home, rather than their domestic lives. This phenomenon is partially due to the driving principle of “finding” women on the same terms as men. Melosh shows that the exhibits of women’s public roles have been more common and more successful in terms of engaging with the available scholarship.
Those exhibits that do present domestic life of women leave out any reference to subjects related to women’s bodies, sexuality, or domestic conflict. For example, Melosh found only one exhibit at the time to actually address domestic conflict in examining the household as a place of labor. The exhibit “Impact: Technology in the Kitchen” described the changes over time in kitchen tools and appliances, but rather than indicating a narrative of progress the exhibit explained how improvements in technology have not changed the amount of time that women spend on housework. This lone example is in contrast to the proliferation of scholarship on women’s domestic conflicts, sexuality, and relationships.
While social history has greatly added to the interpretation of women’s history in museums, museums have not fully incorporated scholarship to the detriment of representations of women’s domestic lives. This issue stems from a continued discomfort with discussing matters of women’s sexuality and family conflict and violence. Part of the lack of critical analysis of women’s domestic lives is a collections issue because matters like divorce or domestic violence do not produce very many tangible objects, especially any which are saved over time. However, Melosh argues the major barrier to a completely scholarship-infused interpretation is the museum’s “code of civility” that tries to evade subject matter that would be upsetting to its constituencies. This issue is largely tied to the need for funding and sponsorship, either from the public or corporations. Melosh encourages museums to resist letting outside sponsors dictate how the exhibits are interpreted and instead pushes upon museums their “social responsibility to close the gap between scholarly and popular conceptions of the past, to convey a more complex sense of history.”
Laura Brandon’s 2010 essay, entitled “Looking for the ‘Total’ Woman in Wartime: A Museological Work in Progress,” discusses the lack of artifacts related to certain experiences of women and the propensity of museums to interpret women in relationship to men or in roles that offer a parallel to men’s rather than looking at women’s experiences in their own right. Brandon reasons that since women make up the majority of the population, their experience of war is important for a complete understanding of wartime; however, war has traditionally been interpreted as a masculine event.
The museum her case study is focused on, which has been traditionally focused on military history rather than social or cultural circumstances of war, had recently made attempts to incorporate women’s experiences. However, the inclusion of women was still in the context of the fighting or in relationship to men. Brandon calls for more interpretation of the actual wartime experiences of the majority of women on the home front such as knitting circles, rationing and making do, working, and receiving letters from male family members. Instead of offering interpretation of the home front, representations of women have been limited to certain types such as nurses and female service personnel, two roles very much in the context of fighting. Brandon outlines the various challenges faced by the Canadian War Museum in new attempts to build a picture of the total woman including adjusting collections policies, finding creative solutions to fill gaps made by past collection policies, and improving cataloging methods in order to better locate the few items that do relate to women’s experiences.
The available artifacts were collected by men and are limited to those objects most closely associated with the fighting, such as guns and uniforms. The lack of both art and artifacts related to women’s experiences is caused largely by past collection policies which sought the tangible remains fit for interpreting traditional military history. Therefore, current curators and museum historians are faced with the challenge of finding representations of women’s experiences. Brandon makes several suggestions to aid this process. She calls upon making use of archival records and changing the system of cataloging to help find objects based on their context and significance rather than simply their function. This method of cataloging would allow staff to pull up objects that relate to women’s experiences because of the personal story attached rather than its formal use. However, even with these methods, the main issue is that wartime material culture that reflects the changes women had to make in their lives on the home front is missing from the Canadian War Museum’s collections. Brandon finds that this issue is largely related to the underestimating of women’s experiences both in history and today. Women do not identify their own material culture relating to war as important or relevant to war museum collections. Furthermore, Brandon finds that women’s history in the academy has had less effect on masculine-oriented, war museums.
The root issue is a lack of interpreting the whole woman, or in other words, the neglect to convey a comprehensive view of women’s pasts, both in and out of the home.
Museums have followed scholars’ lead in increasing the interpretation of women’s lives and experiences; however, that scholarship has not been applied uniformly. As time progressed, the mere inclusion was not enough and interpretation continues to present issues, concerns, and questions about the best approaches and methods for interpreting all aspects of women’s history.
Women’s History in Historic Preservation & Historic Sites
Like museums, historic sites have experienced great changes in terms of the interpretation of women’s lives, experiences, and perceptions because of the influence of social history and women’s history scholarship. However, unlike museums, historic sites have emphasized moving away from interpreting historic houses solely as domestic spaces or as the sole spaces of women, leading to a push for the interpretation of women’s spaces outside of the home.
Much of the reason for a lack of sites related to women’s public roles are the lack of preservation of the evidence. However, there are still numerous ways to find all aspects of women’s lives in the built environment. Beginning with the early calls for increased identification of sites of women’s history, the field then adapted to an increased need for improved interpretation in sites already identified as women’s sites and for the expansion of interpretation into less-obvious sites of women’s experiences.
Like in museums, women’s history in historic sites and preservation began with the call for mere inclusion. Page Putnam Miller presented the following findings in her introduction to the 1992 edited collection, Reclaiming the Past: Landmarks of Women’s History. As recently as 1990, only four parks out of the National Park Service’s 356 units focused on women and less than 2 percent of the 1,942 National Historic Landmarks were designated because of their relationship to women’s history. These statistics quantitatively demonstrate Miller’s motivations for the volume. The goal of the work as a whole was to encourage the fields of women’s history and historic preservation to collaborate in identifying and interpreting historic sites for their place in women’s history. Miller and her colleagues focused on properties that might qualify for National Historic Landmark designation, which, as Miller explained, offers sites more protections than nonprofits and individuals are often able to. Thus, this volume argues, designating women’s history sites as National Historic Landmarks would be the best way to ensure their preservation and proper interpretation for the public.
Reclaiming the Past: Landmarks of Women’s History was very successful in demonstrating the lack of interpretive sites of women’s history in the federal system of landmarks. The volume also successfully showed how historic structures can be a valuable resource for interpreting women’s history. Each essay reflects Miller’s assertion that “[b]uildings may be examined from many viewpoints and reflect social function, technological development, aesthetic taste, and economic factors.” Sites also offer a powerful sense of place, which Miller regards as “equally as important as the research potential of these tangible resources.” Place can provide insight otherwise not easily understood.
Other authors have written proposals and guides to applying some of the same approaches to identifying and interpreting women’s history to local initiatives rather than national landmarks designation. A case study in new ways to interpret women’s history through preservation and the built environment, Gail Lee Dubrow’s 1992 article, “Claiming Public Space for Women’s History in Boston: A Proposal for Preservation, Public Art, and Public Historical Interpretation,” does just what its title implies, proposing that the three approaches be applied in various combinations to interpret women’s history.
Dubrow focuses on issues of public, outdoor space, including structures as well as open areas, in order to emphasize making women’s history visible to the public. She uses the city of Boston, where she undertook a survey of the available resources for interpreting women’s pasts, to show how recent scholarship could be applied to advance an accurate and complete presentation of women’s roles and contributions. This article begins with the need for identification of places of women’s experiences, seeking to begin interpreting women’s history by locating it on the physical landscape. Dubrow argues specifically for using preservation, public art, and public historical interpretation in tandem.
In order to better interpret women’s history, Dubrow calls for less emphasis on notable women and more on “women’s collective accomplishments and activities and to fully encompass the diversity of female historical experience.” However, she still focuses largely on celebrating contributions of women and movements for reform rather than representing ordinary women or a more critical, complicated interpretation of the past. Dubrow does push beyond mere identification of sites though. She argues that the importance of these sites must be made publicly visible. Dubrow cites the quintessential example of a project that combines preservation with art and historical interpretation in order to interpret women’s past. Dolores Hayden’s “Power of Place” project identified sites relevant to women’s history; however, many were no longer standing or were substantially changed. Therefore, public art projects were commissioned on the sites to represent the women’s stories. This successful project serves as an exalted example of what could be achieved through the combined efforts of public history interpretation, preservation, and public art with art’s ability to attract public interest and engagement, “especially where there are few tangible reminders or in situ physical clues about the historical significance of the place.”
This lack of remaining built structures is due to previous lack of identification of women’s history sites, an issue largely tied to the field of preservation’s emphasis on architectural integrity. Many women’s sites are not located in buildings that are otherwise significant for their architectural style.
The field of historic preservation has pushed not only for more interpretation of women’s history but also more comprehensive and critical interpretations that push beyond women’s domestic role which is interpreted over and over again in historic house museums. There has been and remains a need to present women’s history outside of domestic settings and to reinterpret domestic settings for the lives beyond the notable women or wives of famous men that lived there.
Her Past Around Us: Interpreting Sites for Women’s History, a collection of essays edited by Polly Wells Kaufman and Katharine T. Corbett, aimed to be a guide for local teachers and historical societies that were trying to include women’s stories in their local histories or sites. The volume includes eleven case studies that examine a wide variety of sites, some not generally associated with women’s history, some places of forgotten women’s activities, and some usually assumed to be in women’s domain but reinterpreted to present a more complicated view. This volume highlights the value of tangible resources and their ability to connect the public to the past and argues that local sites can offer Americans the specific connections to their present that they so desire when learning about the past.
The chapters are not organized into sections; instead, each chapter focuses on a different kind of public interpretation of women’s pasts. The topics include the development of walking trails or tours of women’s history, the imbalance between the number of statues and monuments honoring individual women as compared to men, Native American women’s efforts at cultural retention, reinterpreting historic house museums to reflect not only the man who owned the house but the women, free, servant, or slave as well. Several chapters address the need to reinterpret historic houses in order to take these marginalized women into account; however, the volume then devotes the largest number of chapters to address the need to represent women’s lives outside the home in order to avoid the “erroneous belief that women worked only in homes, either their own or someone else’s.” Thus the volume includes essays on interpretation of women in familiar yet public places such as cemeteries, businesses, entire cities, and public commemorative celebrations and events.
The volume is a valuable guide for reinterpreting both domestic and public places in order to provide a comprehensive view of women. One example of the volume’s contribution to the improvement of historic house interpretation is Pamela K. Sanfilippo’s essay, “Sunlight and Shadow: Free Space/Slave Space at White Haven,” which examines the lives of the women who lived at Ulysses S. Grant’s Missouri farm home. This shift in focus from the male owner of the home to the women, both his wife as well as the female slaves, represents a trend in the interpretation of historic houses to be more inclusive of all members of the household. The essay analyzes not only the written sources about the women’s lives, but also uses the architecture itself to uncover information about the relationships the women had to physical space and each other within the home. This use of the built environment is seen in the description of the differences between the comfortable areas of the home used by the privileged Julia Grant and the dark kitchens and bedrooms used by slaves. Also using archaeology, the study of White Haven revealed details about the enslaved women’s lives, such as having to hide broken dishes under the floorboards for fear of punishment. Like many of the other works in the volume, this essay demonstrates the possible successes of using material culture, and the built environment more specifically, to discover information about women’s pasts.
The volume also provides unique ideas for interpretation of both women’s public roles and the public, visible commemoration of women. One essay describes the need for increased interpretation of women as entrepreneurs. Candace A. Kanes’ essay, “Revisiting Main Street: Uncovering Women Entrepreneurs,” explains why women’s place in business has been overlooked due to history’s focus on big business and women’s predominance in the domestic sphere. However, Kane explains that some women owned and operated small businesses that were important within their communities. She calls for those local businesses to be identified and properly acknowledged through various interpretive approaches including maps, interpretive panels, or plaques.
Restoring Women’s History through Historic Preservation is a more extensive and comprehensive collection of essays regarding the interpretation of women’s history, specifically in the context of preservation projects. It makes a call for moving toward questions of women’s motivations, specifically in women’s involvement in the preservation movement. By improving understanding of women’s reasons for involvement and their contributions to the movement, those women can better be understood in their context. Explaining the advances in the interpretation of historic houses, the volume still maintains that other kinds of spaces are necessary to prevent spreading “the myth of women’s confinement in the domestic sphere while missing vital opportunities for marking women’s history in the more public arenas of the paid labor force and the community.”
The incorporation of women’s history into public historical interpretation has been an ongoing process that began in both museums and historic sites as mere inclusion. However, with time and the continued efforts of women both in the academy and in public history institutions, the field has begun to push for more critical representations of women’s lives, experiences, contributions, and perspectives. Despite differences in interpretation between museums, which have better interpreted public roles of women, and historic sites, which have traditionally preserved and presented the domestic sphere, many common goals and approaches can be seen. It is clearly widely acknowledged by both preservation and museum professionals that public historians need to apply the best of women’s history scholarship in their representations to the public and present the most comprehensive view of women possible. Public historians need to fulfill the need for the ‘total woman,’ including the public and private spheres, the noteworthy and unusual, as well as the anonymous and the ordinary.
 Barbara Melosh, “Speaking of Women: Museums’ Representation of Women’s History,” History Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment, Edited by Warren Leon and Roy Rosenzweig, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press), 1989, 183-214.
Brandon, Laura. “Looking for the ‘Total’ Woman in Wartime: A Museological Work in Progress.” Gender, Sexuality, and Museums: A Routledge Reader. Edited by Amy K. Levin. (London: Routledge). 2010.
Dubrow, Gail Lee. “Claiming Public Space for Women’s History in Boston: A Proposal for Preservation, Public Art, and Public Historical Interpretation.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies. (13:1). 1992. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3346948. Accessed November 22, 2013.
Dubrow, Gail Lee, and Jennifer B. Goodman, editors. Restoring Women’s History through Historic Preservation. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), 2003.
Kaufman, Polly Welts, and Katharine T. Corbett, editors. Her Past Around Us: Interpreting Sites for Women’s History. (Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company). 2003.
Mayo, Edith P. “Women’s History and Public History: The Museum Connection.” The Public Historian. (5:2). 1983. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3377251. Accessed November 20, 2013.
Melosh, Barbara. “Speaking of Women: Museums’ Representation of Women’s History.” History Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment. Edited by Warren Leon and Roy Rosenzweig. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press). 1989, 183-214.
Miller, Page Putnam, editor. Reclaiming the Past: Landmarks of Women’s History. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press). 1992.