An Appeal to the Women of the United States Senate

An Appeal to the Women of the United States Senate

From Women’s Historians of the United States

Regarding your support for S. 398, To Establish the Commission to Study the Potential Creation of a National Women’s History Museum

The signers of this petition recognize and thank you for all you have done, and will do, for the women of the United States through your service in the Senate. We understand that most of you have already agreed to sponsor or co-sponsor S. 398. As women's historians and scholars of women, many of us specializing in the women of the United States, as well as museum experts, public historians, and other professionals concerned with issues of women and gender, we wholeheartedly support the idea of creating a museum of American women’s history in the Nation’s capital. Nevertheless, we are concerned that the bill, as currently written, does not mandate a place for women’s historians on the Commission. This is a serious oversight. Thus we call upon you to consider submitting an amendment or amendments to improve your bill.

We are aware that amending a bill that you have already supported is an unusual step for members of the Senate to take, but we believe that it is warranted because the project as currently constituted is at risk of failure. The non-profit National Women’s History Museum (NWHM) has, over the past 16 years, done a great deal to publicize the need for a museum of women’s history; indeed, without their persistence, there would be no bills in Congress today. Nevertheless, we fear that, under its continued leadership, the project will not come to fruition because NWHM’s conceptualization and mode of presentation of U.S. women’s history is unprofessional, inaccurate, and incomplete. Since the time when many of you agreed to co-sponsor the bill, the NWHM has dissolved its Scholars Advisory Council, thus barring a distinguished group of professional women’s historians from participating in the project at the outset and making sure that it reflects the highest standards of scholarship in the field.

We ask you to consider amending the bill in the interest of ensuring that any institution that emerges from this process be fully capable of presenting the history of American women with integrity and accuracy, as the women of the United States—indeed, the people of the United States—fully deserve. Accordingly, we propose the following amendment or amendments:

· In Sec. 3 (b), regarding the size of the Commission, the number of members should be increased from eight to twelve.

· In Sec. 3 (c), regarding members’ qualifications, it should be stipulated that four of the members be historians of American women, four be museum experts, and four have experience in public or elected service, preferably with regard to women’s history, or in fundraising.

· Sec. 4 (b) (2) (A), which calls for considering a role for the NWHM regarding fundraising, should be deleted.

· In Sec. 4 a requirement that the Commission hold a period for public comment should be inserted.

Our reasons for proposing these amendments are as follows:

The size of the proposed Commission is smaller than that of similar commissions, and as such, we do not believe that it would be large enough to represent the full diversity of American women or the skills and knowledge needed to create a major museum.

The bill does not mandate a place for historians on the Commission; “experience in the study and teaching of women’s history” is only one possible qualification. Historians and other scholars who have built the field of U.S. women’s history have much to contribute to the creation of a museum of women’s history. Thus they should have a role in the process, as have historians and scholars for other recently constituted museums, such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Sec. 4 (b) (1) currently states that the Museum will be established and maintained “through contributions from the public,” and Sec. 4 (b) (2) (A) goes on to call upon the commission to consider “the role of the National Women’s History Museum (a nonprofit, educational organization)…in raising funds for the construction of the museum.” The fundraising record of the NWHM does not inspire confidence that it will be able to raise the estimated $500 million required to construct the museum or $10 million needed annually for maintenance and operations. Over the 16 years of its existence, the NWHM has raised only $14 million, most of which has gone to cover its own expenses, and since 2010, its revenues have, according to public records, declined by 25 percent annually.

Moreover, the NWHM has had an extremely poor record of dealing with professional scholars. It has never had a women’s historian on its paid staff, and it has failed to engage consistently with the noted historians on its advisory councils who were volunteering their expertise. As a result, most of the exhibits on the NWHM website have been poorly constructed, superficial, and often inaccurate.

We believe that in order to raise the requisite amount of funding, those representing the future museum must be able to communicate its mission in a convincing and inspiring way. Given its record, we do not believe that the NWHM leadership is capable of conveying a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the field of U.S. women’s history. Thus it should not be given special consideration for a role in fundraising.

Sec. 4 (d) calls for a national conference but does not stipulate a period for public comment. This is an essential part of any process leading to the creation of a national institution devoted to public education, and thus should be added.

In order to present a balanced, comprehensive, and accurate view of U.S. women’s history, a museum needs the continual participation of professional women’s historians and museum experts. Amending S. 398 as requested will improve the bill and guarantee the American public a world-class museum of women’s history.

Discussion

  • Kirsten Fischer The American public and visitors from other countries expect and deserve a Women's History Museum that meets the highest standards of scholarship and includes the most recent insights of scholars in the field. Please write a strong bill to ensure that the Museum will meet these expectations.

  • Elizabeth Jameson It is absolutely essential that this important proposed museum reflect the inclusive and diverse vision of women's history that it has taken a half century of engaged scholarship to achieve. To incorporate women's history meaningfully in a National Women's History Museum will require the professional expertise of women's historians in every stage of planning and implementation.

  • Renee Laegreid The proposed National Women's History Museum absolutely needs to have professional scholars of women's history involved in every stage of planning and execution.

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