Michel has written a
scathing indictment (with a
response and followup) of the
“National Women’s History Museum,” a group dedicated to making a real
museum on the Mall in D.C.
including – full disclosure here – my mother), the NWHM has gone out of their
way to distance themselves from actual professional historians, instead
presenting an out-moded, superficial, amateur, and often inaccurate face of
much longer contest over the stories we want to tell about discrimination,
progress, and the relevance of such issues in today’s society.
few years ago, some very important scholars were invited to form an advisory
board and to help the NWHM with their project. Sadly, that collaboration has now ended.
month,” Michel writes, “Joan Wages, the president and CEO of the National
Women’s History Museum, abruptly informed me and my fellow historians on the
museum’s Scholarly Advisory Council that our services were no longer needed.
For three years, we had been trying to help Wages’ nonprofit organization
develop an overall vision for the institution it hopes to build on the National
abrupt end to the collaboration? Michel suggests that while history is often
messy; these people wanted to tell a clean, simple, positivist story. She
announced that it had launched a new online exhibit, “Pathways to Equality: The U.S. Women’s Rights Movement
Emerges,” in conjunction with the Google Cultural Institute. Never informed
that the exhibit was in the works, much less given an opportunity to vet it, we
were appalled to discover that it was riddled with historical errors and
inaccuracies. To pick just one example: Harriet Beecher Stowe was described as
having been “born into a family of abolitionists” when, from the time of her
birth through her young adulthood in the 1830s, her family actively opposed the
abolitionist movement. “Pathways to Equality,” noted Kathryn Kish Sklar, the
nineteenth-century specialist who pointed out the error, “could have been
written by a middle-school student.”
undersell middle school students. Many, in fact, work well with experts (their
teachers and parents) to fact-check.
suggests that at the core is a strong difference between fundamental
conceptions of what history, especially women’s history, is, does, and is for.
text, the central theme of the museum was to be the struggle for women’s rights
and the triumph of the suffrage movement.
on “great women” and the acquisition of formal political rights to be outdated
and much too narrow to capture the manifold ways in which women have shaped
U.S. history. We were also dismayed to note that nearly all of the women pictured
on the brochure were white, and several (Mary Wollstonecraft, Olympe de Gouges)
not actually American. This sort of thinking about history typifies the NWHM
style. Its approach is encapsulated in this statement on its website: “Women’s history isn’t meant to rewrite
history. The objective is to promote scholarship and expand our knowledge of
American history.” While most women’s historians would agree with the second
part, we would disagree with the first. We
have set out to rewrite history.
think, is the most important detail of Michel’s piece. Beyond the politics and
perhaps personalities, there is a fundamental difference on the purpose and
nature of history between the enthusiastic amateur and the professional
scholar. It’s a split that goes far deeper than the issues at play with the
History and many other fields that have emerged in the profession more recently
– queer studies and disability studies, for example – have pushed us all,
sometimes uncomfortably, to re-examine the past, our own understandings, and to
re-structure whatever “master,” or perhaps “mistress” (as Judith
Bennett writes) narratives of history survive the process. That’s as true for
my field (medieval) as for U.S. history.
contemporary American society, the position of American women in our history
remains a subject of intense debate. Michel’s piece coincides with continued
debates about paycheck fairness, rape culture, voter suppression, the right of
women to have access to birth control, and the rapid proliferation of anti-choice
political issues match up with a flurry of articles about whether people interested in gender equality should
talk about deep structural problems, bias, and sexism, or whether what women
really need to do, in order to achieve equality is
to be more confident (or “lean-in”).
in women’s history are able to place such contemporary questions in a broad
historical context, linking sexism and discrimination now and in the past.
That’s threatening to a bland positivist master narrative of progress from the
“bad old days” before the vote to the good times now.
to bring that uneasy re-examination of ourselves, our historical memories, and
the stories we tell into the public space. It is the chief work – not
fact-checking – of the publicly engaged historian, and it’s clear that there
are lots of women’s historians ready to engage.
need partners to do it.
bad this organization seems unwilling to risk opening the door.