Joan Wages and her long quest for a Women’s Museum in Washington

In Episode 2 of “Listen, Ladies”, Maryalice Aymong and Julia Moser, talk to Joan Wages, president of the National Women’s History Museum. The interview was been condensed an edited. To listen to the whole interview, download it here:

Listen Ladies (LL): 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.


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