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The National Women's History Museum Apparently Doesn't Much Care for Women's Historians

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Last month, 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 Mall.

Oddly, this move came just as the NWHM is about to win the preliminary congressional approval for the project it has been seeking for sixteen years. But the enabling legislation, which will set up an exploratory commission, offers no guarantee that scholars who have built the field of women’s history will have a role in the institution. Both Wages and lawmakers seem to think that a women’s history museum doesn’t need women’s historians. Without them, however, historians fear that the exigencies of congressional politics and day-to-day fundraising will lead to the creation of a museum that seeks to be as non-controversial as possible—whatever the cost to its scholarly reputation.

Last month’s dismissal of the scholars followed yet another example of a museum offering that embarrassed those of us who were trying to ensure that the institution was adhering to the highest standards in our field. In mid-March, the museum 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.”

Sklar’s reaction was hardly unique. With no actual historians on its staff and only scant communication with scholars, much of the museum’s public presence over the past few years—online, in print, and in the events it sponsors—had communicated what we considered to be an amateur, superficial, and inaccurate understanding of U.S. women’s history. Last summer, a group of the affiliated historians had written to Wages and the board of directors to outline our concerns and ask for greater engagement, with few results.

This latest instance of the museum’s feckless disregard for scholarly review prompted a number of the affiliated historians to conclude that we could not, in good faith, remain on the SAC. We realized that our presence there implied endorsement of the museum’s interpretation and presentation of women’s history, “when in fact we considered it to be neglectful of the diversity and vibrancy of recent scholarship,” as one of the group, Eileen Boris, Hull Professor and chair of Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, put it. Reluctantly, we began to draft a letter of public resignation. Before it was completed, however, Wages informed us she was dissolving the SAC.

In explaining her decision, Wages cited the bills currently pending in Congress. “Recently constituted museums that have successfully navigated the legislative process,” she wrote, “did not hire museum staff, establish advisory councils, including any scholars committees, or develop museum plans until after their legislation passed and they had reached critical fundraising milestones….NWHM has been cautioned that it would be getting out in front of the Commission to develop a museum plan.”  

In fact, both the Holocaust Museum and the soon-to-open African-American museum had noted scholars on board well before they even acquired sites on the Mall. But even if this argument were true, its logic underscores our fear that the museum will eschew analytic rigor to avoid irking donors or elected officials. 

Despite its name, the NWHM has long had a troubled relationship with women’s historians; in fact, since its founding in 1996, there has never been one on its staff. Its first president, Karen Staser, was an organizational psychologist; Wages, its second, is a lobbyist who made her reputation shepherding the bill banning smoking on aircraft through Congress in 1998. Introducing a museum-sponsored public lecture in 2011, Wages cheerfully denied having any professional knowledge of women’s history but averred that that the museum “is not only a dream come true for historians, but for all women in this country."

Throughout its early years, the NWHM had so little contact with the academic community that few women’s historians were even aware of its existence. In 2010, however, it began a brief relationship with Ralph Applebaum Associates, an internationally known museum design firm. When Applebaum advised Wages to reach out to women’s historians, she contacted Sklar, a distinguished professor at Binghamton University. Sklar, in turn, provided a list of scholars to be invited to a series of regional meetings beginning in early 2011. I was one of the invitees. 

(Applebaum would part ways with the NWHM in spring of 2012 after an exposé in the Huffington Post  revealed irregularities in the museum’s governance. Wages was serving as both president and CEO of the company and as president of its board of directors, a violation of best practices for both non-profit and for-profit corporations.) 

On a snowy day in late January, 2011, Wages, Applebaum, and ten or so local historians came together for the first regional meeting. Applebaum staffers circulated a glossy prospectus with a collage of famous female figures on the cover and a mock-up of what the museum might look like inside. According to the large-font text, the central theme of the museum was to be the struggle for women’s rights and the triumph of the suffrage movement.

The historians found the focus 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. 

Indeed, most of us long ago abandoned the “add-women-and-stir” approach to women’s history, whereby one simply attempted to find female parallels to prominent male figures and patterns of accomplishment. Instead, we have developed new categories to analyze American history through women’s eyes, such as how they used their own organizations to shape fundamental protections like mothers’ pensions and the Fair Labor Standards Act, how they reconfigured family life as part of the 19th-century modernizing process, and how their labor—paid and unpaid—has restructured the American economy. Our goal is to show the full diversity of women’s history without portraying it as a seamless path from corset and kitchen to boardroom and the halls of Congress.

We believe that a museum can show this too, but only if it works at it. It is all too easy to slip into a mode of kitschy, triumphalist storytelling. At the initial gatherings, Wages and her colleagues seemed to be receptive to the historians’ views. Thus in the spring of 2011, when we were invited to join the advisory body, more than twenty of us—with PhDs in history or American civilization, appointments at leading universities or research institutions, and long experience working with museums, presses, journals, and boards—happily signed on. We were excited about the prospect of collaborating on such an important project.

Given our qualifications and willingness to provide services gratis, we were dismayed when our offers to help were systematically rebuffed. In our letters, we urged Wages and the board to develop “a deeper and more institutionalized relationship with the affiliated scholars,” appoint a “prominent scholar of women’s history” and a “prominent academic administrator” to the board, and hire a PhD in women’s history as the museum’s director of programs. 

Wages resisted our recommendations. She claimed that appointing academics to the board of directors would constitute a “conflict of interest.” The current members, she told us, had each gained a seat by contributing $25,000 annually, a condition she was unwilling to waive, even though many non-profits have board members who donate their expertise in lieu of cash. And instead of bringing in a PhD to direct programs, Wages kept on Elizabeth Maurer, a part-time contractor she had hired in January, 2013 who had an MA in museum education but little formal training in women’s history. 

The bills currently before Congress reflect NWHM’s dismissive attitude toward professional history. While calling for an eight-member federal commission to explore the feasibility of the project and submit a plan of action to the president and Congress, they stipulate that one qualification for membership on the commission might be experience in researching, studying, or teaching women’s history, but this is not a requirement. Other possibilities include museum experience, fundraising expertise, or public or elected service. This means that professional historians might be entirely absent from the process. 

This prospect apparently does not trouble Wages, who has eagerly testified before the House in favor of its bill. Nor does it seem to bother the growing ranks of congressional sponsors of the legislation, who currently number 88 in the House and 20 in the Senate. With both parties eager to demonstrate their ability to work together, the proposed law has found unprecedented bipartisan support.  Most Democrats have long supported the project, but Republicans have only recently signed on, drawn in by new assurances that the project won’t cost taxpayers a dime, since it is to be funded entirely with private donations.

The bipartisan support may also reflect comfort with the NWHM’s anodyne presentation of U.S. women’s history, one that focuses on women’s formal political rights but omits more troublesome issues such as reproductive rights, pay discrimination, and sexual diversity. At two recent House hearings on the bill, witnesses and lawmakers mainly traded platitudes about American women’s accomplishments. Wages and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the House bill’s two sponsors, seemed to be competing with committee members to see who could come up with more female “firsts”: the first state to grant women suffrage; the first woman to be elected to Congress; the first women to have their statue placed in the Capitol Rotunda.

To women’s historians, this kind of exchange indicates a lack of serious engagement with the subject that is not only disheartening but also shows disrespect for the tremendous scholarly effort that has gone into building their field over the past 40 years.

To develop a credible and innovative museum, scholars must play a role in the planning process. Our group is asking both houses to ensure women’s historians a voice on the commission. The American Historical Association has also weighed in, stating in a letter to the chairs of the two House committees that have jurisdiction over the bill, “We strongly believe that any project to create a new national history museum should involve professional historians from the outset.” 

We scholars are also troubled that both bills, as currently written, seem to carve out a special role for NWHM—the nonprofit organization led by Wages, that is—in any future institution. While we acknowledge its years-long struggle to keep the idea of the museum alive, our own experiences have convinced us that it is not capable of bringing such a major project to fruition. 

The bills specify that the NWHM is to be considered only for a role in fundraising. Perhaps their authors were not aware of the NWHM’s record on that score, which does not inspire confidence that it will be able to come up with the estimated $500 million needed to construct the museum, let alone the additional millions that will be required annually to maintain the facility. Over the past sixteen years, NWHM has raised only $14 million, most of which has gone to cover its own expenses. To be sure, it is more difficult to gain support for a virtual museum than a bricks-and-mortar edifice, but without presenting a more robust view of women’s history, the NWHM’s leadership is unlikely to open pursestrings. If the future museum follows the course outlined in the bills, it is likely that at some point it will either have to break its pledge to be self-supporting and ask Congress for funding, or begin charging admission—something none of the other museums on the National Mall has ever done. 

But Wages seems to be envisioning an even broader role for her organization if the Commission approves the project. “NWHM’s goal is to build awareness, audiences, and support for a national women’s history museum,” she told the scholars. “We do this through our legislative strategy, fundraising, partnerships, and educational outreach. Moving forward, we are developing a working plan to meet this goal. We will use existing scholarship as the basis of programs and exhibits that engage the public in our important mission….We are making headway and look forward to the day that we can share the museum opening together.” 

If by “existing scholarship” she is referring to the materials already posted on the NWHM website, the future museum will start off with a very shaky foundation. And without professional historians on hand, its content will remain mediocre. American women deserve better—a first-rate historical museum of their own.