Joan Wages and her long quest for a Women’s Museum in Washington
Julia: Listen up ladies, you’ve made it to episode two of Listen, Ladies. I’m Julia Moser.
Maryalice: And I’m Maryalice Aymong. Thanks so much guys for tuning in once again. We’re so happy to have you and I will tell you, we have an amazing interview today.
Julia: This is a good one.
Listen Ladies (LL): You’re going to love it. We spoke to Joan Wages. She is the president of the National Women’s History Museum and if you’re thinking to yourself right now, “hey, I’ve never been to the National Women’s History Museum. Where is that and why have I never been there?” There’s actually a really good answer tot that question and we will get to the bottom of it when we talk to Joan later. If you’ve ever visited our nation’s capital, one of the biggest and least expensive activities is the Smithsonian Collection of Museums. There is the Air and Space Museum, the American Art Museum, the Natural History Museum…you get the gist. But, there is no space specifically designated to celebrate and commemorate the accomplishments of women. Meaning, there are a lot of important people who made an impact on the country and the world that are not household names, but a determined group has been on the quest to make room on the National Mall for a Women’s Museum and we’re so excited to have Joan Wages, who is the president of the National Women’s History Museum. She’s joining us on the phone right now from Alexandria, Virginia. We’re so happy to have her. Hi Joan.
Joan: Hi, thanks for having me.
LL: Of course. Thank you. So, before we get into the push to make this museum happen, I was hoping to learn a little more about you. You know, I saw that you lobbied for the Family and Medical Leave Act, you worked to get The Portrait Monument over over to the Capitol Rotunda, which, for our listeners, that’s actually a big sculpture featuring women’s suffrage leaders. So, how did you get to this point in your career?
Joan: I think I forever had a great interest in the roles that women play in our society and I ended up moving to Washington in 1989 and I was lobbying on some women’s issues that particularly impacted women in the workplace and then I learned about this effort to move this statue of the suffrage leaders and I really didn’t know who the women were; I was just upset that Congress did not want women standing in the Rotunda, along with our nation’s forefathers so I got involved in the project to move the statue and then over the years, the more I learned about women’s history, the more I realized how important it is and how it can really have an impact on women’s lives and change the way we think about ourselves, as well as change the way that men look at women and the value they have for what women have done to build our nation.
LL: The museum was actually founded in 1996 and the report was delivered to Congress this past fall. What’s the status?
Joan: We have been working with members of Congress to get legislation introduced and a bill was introduced on March 30th. It’s HR19, so it was actually named after the 19th Amendment that gave women the vote and so this is in the House of Representatives and this legislation identifies two potential building sites on the National Mall; one or the other would be used for the museum. This particular bill calls for the museum to be part of Smithsonian and has various other provisions, but now we’re working to get a bill introduced into the US Senate and it may be identical to the House bill, it may not and so we’re kind of going through a period of time here where we’re just trying to figure out what we think we have the support for moving.
LL: It seems like this is something that would definitely be bipartisan. I was just looking through some of the people on your board. One of them in Elaine Child, the new Transportation Secretary. Do you think that, given the partisan politics that are going on, is this something that people maybe could get excited about and sort of work together on and also, what do you think has taken so long to get to this point? I think probably a lot of people would be surprised.
Joan: Yes, I know. It seems like it’s taking forever. Let me go to the bipartisan issue. We have had very strong bipartisan support since the very beginning of our working on legislation for this museum and a lot of the reason has been that we have offered to Congress that we will privately fund the museum. We have not been asking for federal funding. So, that appeals to the Republican side of the House and the Democratic side has a strong support for something like a Women’s History Museum. So, we have gotten strong support from both sides of the aisle and we expect to continue to get strong support. So, to what’s taking so long. It just takes a long time in Washington, I mean you watch other issues and it takes a long time to get 535 people, so that 100 in the Senate and 435 in the House, to agree to what should take up one of these precious places on the National Mall. From the time the African American Museum was first suggested in the House of Representatives, it was 100 years before their legislation passed. The Holocaust Museum, it was created largely through a presidential commission, but that took about 25 years to get the door open after that commission. So, it just takes a long time here in Washington.
LL: Do you have a vision for what you would like the building to be eventually?
Joan: I think we want to keep the concept of having a feminine type of building. I think you wouldn’t want something that looked like it was sharp and direct that would represent women (Why not!! Women can be sharp and direct!) The most exciting thing, I think, about the building is that we have the potential to have a female architect and the interesting part, in particular, is that finally enough women have had lengthy careers as architects and have the experience now to be able to design a museum that would go on the National Mall and this would be the first time a female has designed a building for the National Mall.
LL: That would be amazing, but also like, why hasn’t a woman designed another museum?
Joan: Yeah, I’ve just come to learn that it takes years and years and years to build the experience that is needed to do a project like this so there are a number of women who would now be qualified.
LL: Kind of along the same lines, I was sort of thinking, is there a flip side to this because why aren’t the accomplishments of women highlighted enough in regular history museums? Why aren’t those names getting the attention they deserve in buildings that don’t have specifically the name “Women’s Museum” around it?
Joan: I think the simple answer is that museums have largely been directed by and run by males and their interest has not been focused on what has been going on in women’s lives and only, I think it was the sixties, that there were finally programs where someone could get a PhD in history, in women’s history so this is a relatively new area and just a few years ago we had female women history scholars telling us that they still had to fight for recognition in the history field when it came to women’s history so the fight is still continuing. The question is, is this really history? But it’s only history to 51% of the population. Maybe, it’s not history to the other 49%, but this idea that women’s lives, because they wee associated, many years ago, largely with the home and the community, that they were not having an impact and yet we know when we start reading their letters and doing some research, it was women who came together to help heal the soldiers after the Civil War, on both sides, the North and the South. It was the women who came forward. Women have played such critical roles in our nation and those roles need to be recognized and therefore valued more.
LL: Right now the museum exists online through interactive exhibits. There are some on entrepreneurships, young girls…what are some of your favorite exhibits?
Joan: I love the exhibit on the history of women in film. If you remember, old movie theaters looked much like opera houses and they were very ornate and far more ornate than we would see today. The reason for that is because when films first came out, women would not go to see them because it was not considered acceptable socially or it was not considered safe so they built the movie theaters to look like opera houses so that women would feel safe to attend and because of that, the movie industry took off.
LL: That is amazing. I love that.
Joan: Isn’t that great? But that’s just one example of the many ways that because women have either through their preferences or their attractions or their passions have changed our society and our culture.
LL: I actually had so much fun going through the exhibits. One of my favorites was the one that was on female spies because that’s like secretly my backup career. I was just wondering if you could speak to the ways that women have sort of protecting the country and also going back to even the nation’s founding, some of the wives of some really notable politicians contributed so much and I didn’t even know about it until I started reading about it on your website.
Joan: Right, yes and so many of those women were just heroic in their support for their husbands, but standing strong in the face of war and one my favorite stories in the spy exhibit is the story about Mary Elizabeth Bowser, who was an emancipated slave who agreed to be placed in the household of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, during the Civil War and Davis’ household assumed that because she was African American, she was illiterate and so he would leave dispatches out on his desktop and Bowser, not only could read, but had a photographic memory so she would memorize these dispatches and then relay the information back to the Union armies.
LL: What a story! That’s amazing!
Joan: What assumptions will do! But, all the women who dressed as men so that they could fight during the Revolutionary War, the first war. Deborah Sampson would dress as a man so she could fight and she was shot, she was injured and they took her to the infirmary and she got up and ran out because she knew once they took her pants off, she would be discovered for not being the sex they thought she was and she actually cut out the mullet herself, sewed herself up, and went back into battle. I mean, what kind of courage does that take? There is just story after story about these women.
LL: I was wondering, some of the spy stories were so many decades ago; how do you get evidence for this? Where does this information come from?
Joan: Much of it comes from letters that are written. That’s the way people communicated back then, so a treasure trove of letters will be found and not only does it tell you about that specific person, but it tells you about what’s going on in the community and in the country and what they’re hearing. There were some newspapers so there was some print and there were a few other records. There were some records in the city, some birth records and things, land and property ownership and those types of things.
LL: Do you have a staff of curators that are already going through this stuff that will be ready to go if and when the museum does get a space and is able to get started?
Joan: We have a team in our program department who do a lot of a lot of the research and background for our online exhibits. We’ve done 11 online exhibits with the Google Art and Culture Institute so we’re really getting that information out. It’s getting to millions of people. Some of that is research for the future, but when you’re building museums, the first thing you have to do is get your idea for your building and at least know how big your museum is going to be and then you go from there to start planning, well okay what are the key topics that you want to make sure that you cover and then what kind of travelling exhibits will you have and what kind of rotating exhibits will you have and so all of that needs to be planned before you start accepting artifacts because artifacts are very costly to care for, to handle, and to store and you don’t want to be in a situation of where you have a lot of artifacts that don’t fit into your program, that you don’t really have a story to tell around them.
LL: There are celebrities who are involved in this cause…Shonda Rhimes, Kate Walsh, Meryl Streep donated her salary from “The Iron Lady” to this. How do you pitch this to someone as a cause that they should care about?
Joan: What’s interesting with those people, as well as so many women is that the minute we what we’re doing, most women get it because they flash on how few women they learned about when they were in school and I’ve actually had women get a little angry when they realized that there isn’t a Women’s History Museum.
LL: I was kind of mad as well.
Joan: Once it dawns on you, you go, well why don’t we have a Women’s History Museum? It’s just a matter of, it is not been where the powers that be have wanted to place their emphasis and they haven’t wanted to stress that aspect of our history. We are building enough momentum now, between getting information to members of Congress and through our website and we’re getting to millions of people where we’ve got close to 500,000 Facebook fans. We have a big event in Los Angeles in September; we have one coming up here in DC in May that we’re going to honor former first lady Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton has done a video to recognize her and to honor her and we’ll be showing that. All of these are ways for us to get the information out and help build momentum so that Congress will feel like, oh yeah; this absolutely needs to be done.
LL: What motivates you to keep fighting for this? What keeps you in the fight?
Joan: I think that it’s at the core of my spirit and being that women deserve to be equally honored and respected and I think that this museum will have a great impact in making the case for all women in this country.
LL: We really appreciate you taking the time. We’re in the fight too and people really need to hear about this stuff.
Joan: Look forward to seeing you when we have the ribbon cutting!