Building our rightful place in history - Museums Association

Building our rightful place in history

Holly Hotchner on the growing efforts to give women the plinth they deserve in history
Equality Feminism
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Holly Hotchner
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The statue of three suffragists installed in the Capitol Rotunda in the 1920s was swiftly hidden
The statue of three suffragists installed in the Capitol Rotunda in the 1920s was swiftly hidden

In 2017, the National Women’s History Museum (NWHM), an online museum and educational resource, released a report Where are the Women?, which examined the status of women’s history in US state-level social studies standards.

It found that the breadth and depth of women’s experiences and stories were not well integrated into US state history standards. The numbers are sobering: of 737 historical figures in curriculum standards, just 178 are women. 

While the report focused on school curricula, the lack of women’s representation is all too familiar everywhere, meaning history is missing a large swathe of critical context. It is difficult to reconstruct history in hindsight – especially when so much was not recorded or documented.

We, as a generation, are not engaging as deeply as we should in understanding the contributions that women have made to society in the past and, at the same time, we are not fully capturing the often awe-inspiring work of women who are leaders and trailblazers today.

History is now and yet women’s roles as agents of change are poorly acknowledged and studied. At the current rate of change, according to the World Economic Forum in 2019, women in the US are still 208 years away from achieving gender equality.

Our institution began when founder Karen Staser learned that a sculpture of three suffragists – installed in the United States Capitol Rotunda in 1920 in a ceremony with 5,000 attendees – was moved the very next day, on orders of Congress, to a room in the basement known as the “Crypt”.

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After several major attempts failed to bring this monument to the literal light of day, the founders of our museum, and others, led the charge to return this sculpture to the rotunda, where it has now proudly stood in its rightful home since 1997. This effort launched many similar movements in other cities, and reminds us that the fight for representation continues.

The US has myriad museums focused on everything from spies to stamps and dinosaurs, but there has never been a national comprehensive bricks-and-mortar women’s history museum. We’re here to change that.

For the past quarter of a century, we’ve served as the largest online cultural institution dedicated to US women’s history. From our extensive collection of virtual exhibits, biographies, and programmes to events and classroom-ready resources, we’ve long been driven by our belief that representation matters, it is urgent and it must be accessible.

The plinth was reinstalled in 1997

In addition to our virtual offerings, we’re excited to soon announce the location of our first physical home in Washington, DC, a space that will spark imagination, ignite possibility and inspire visitors to amplify the impactful role of women past and present.

As an institution, we’ve long recognised that there is an urgent need to capture the breadth of women’s experience to ensure that it becomes an integral part of history. As a society, we need to value women’s contributions and we need a more comprehensive approach to reaching below the surface to lift up the many stories waiting to be told about outstanding women and their notable accomplishments.

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We need to engage much more deeply in scholarship that will help us capture the details and understand the meaning inherent in the experience of women across the globe. And we need better ways to share the insights and dialogues that such work can reap.

Historian Bettany Hughes once observed that “it’s the inconvenient truth that women have always been 50% of the population, but only occupy around 0.5% of recorded history”.

Story by story, we’re working to ensure a more representative, inclusive and accurate history is told, because without women, history is incomplete.

Holly Hotchner is president and CEO of the NWHM

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