Will the National Women’s History Museum Ever Be Built?

A newly passed proposal gives us hope. But despite help from big names like Meryl Streep, foot-dragging and feminism-phobia may continue to halt its creation.

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It took 361 days for the House of Representatives to pass a bill suggesting that golfer Jack Nicklaus receive a congressional gold medal for “promoting excellence, good sportsmanship, and philanthropy”; nine months and two days to approve the expansion of the Gettysburg National Military Park; and four months and 12 days to authorize a study on ways to commemorate the role Buffalo Soldiers played in the formation of the National Parks Service.


But guess how long it took to get Congress to consider a museum to honor the achievements of women? Try one year, two months, and 10 days.


Last month, on May 7, the House greenlit a proposal, HR 863, sponsored by Democratic Representative Carolyn Maloney and her Republican colleague Marsha Blackburn, for a “commission to study the potential creation of a National Women’s History Museum.” It’s been a long time coming. As Representative Maloney put it in a speech she gave in front of her colleagues last March, “in large part, women are invisible. History is empowering. It shapes who we are and provides role models to guide us.” Last year, the bill had 25 co-sponsors; this time around, there were 94.


So, progress, right?


Don’t celebrate just yet: Let’s unpack the wording of that piece of legislation. The bill does not mean a museum will be built—the word potential tells us that. It doesn’t even mean that planning can start in earnest. It means a formal group of eight members has just been authorized—by the House, anyway; the plan still needs to pass the Senate—to explore what building the museum will entail, how it would be structured and how construction will be funded. It’s a baby step made in the face of reluctance, to put it mildly, about the museum for years. Leave it to Rush Limbaugh to take yet another misogynist swipe, saying, “We already have, ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know how many museums for women all over the country. They are called malls.”


Supporters have been angling for years for a museum that, per its website, celebrates “the diverse historic contributions of women, and integrating this rich heritage fully into our nation’s history,” and there’s no guarantee it’ll ever be built. The nonprofit promoting its creation has been around since 1996, actually, mobilizing supporters and raising funds for the museum. Celebrities like Laura Dern and Meryl Streep, who pledged a $1 million donation, have been on board for a while, rallying supporters. The first bill related to the museum—one that would have located the museum at the Old Post Office on 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue—found its way to the Senate all the way back in 2003; the Senate voted yes twice, but it failed at the House.


Another bill in support of it actually passed the House in 2009, but it floundered when the Senate failed to vote on it. All this for a museum that isn’t even casting for federal monies for construction; this despite other institutions on the National Mall—according to the NWHM website, the future address will hopefully be at 12th Street S.W. and Independence Avenue S.W. near the Smithsonian metro station—having been built with government funding. The museum has been able to successfully lobby to move a statue of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony from the Crypt to the Rotunda, but it paid for the expense, which rang up to about $100,000. “It’s the only statue of women that ever stood in the Rotunda, and it stands there today,” says NWHM president and CEO, Joan Wages. “That was our lesson. The only way we would overcome these rejections was to offer to pay for [the museum].”

What else is behind the foot-dragging? Would the bill that just passed have gotten anywhere had a man, namely House majority leader Eric Cantor, not decided it needed attention, a big about-face considering longtime opposition from Republicans who, according to the New York Times, stalled it for years? “If it’s a group of women, it’s a women’s issue,” laments one former staffer for a high-ranking member of Congress, who spoke to us on condition of anonymity. “There’s the Hispanic Museum, which has been in the works for years and years and years. The African-American History Museum—why is this taking so long? It’s not just women but all people who have struggled for freedom and equal rights in America.”

Michelle Bachmann, of all people, may have the answer. The Minnesota congresswoman voted against the bill this month, which passed 383 to 33, because, she says, “I believe ultimately this museum that will be built on the National Mall, on federal land, will enshrine the radical feminist movement that stands against the pro-life movement, the pro-family movement, and pro-traditional marriage movement.”


Outrageous word soup Bachmann’s remark may be, it still speaks to a problem that persists today and that recently reared its hideous head when Divergent actress Shailene Woodley decried being labeled a “feminist”: the ill-conceived notion that elevating women means denigrating men or promoting a liberal agenda (see: Bachmann who, by the way, is recognized in an NWHM online exhibit for her role as a foster mom.


Never mind the reality that all women suffer from inequality. Never mind that a Paycheck Fairness Act providing “more effective remedies to victims of discrimination in the payment of wages on the basis of sex, and for other purposes” faced unanimous opposition from Senate Republicans last month. Never mind that most museums (and books, and movies, and ad infinitum—you know this already) are replete with references to men’s achievements. Never mind that 91 years after the Equal Rights Amendment was first proposed in Congress, we have yet to see it adopted. “We think that [Bachmann’s] comments are evident as to why we need a women’s history museum,” says Wages. “For anyone to reduce the breadth of women’s history down to one particular issue shows a lack of understanding about women’s history.”


But yes, there’s reason to celebrate the bill’s passage in the House. It is, after all, a step in the right direction. At this rate, we’ll take all the steps we can get. As Simone de Beauvoir put it, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Becoming takes a while sometimes.


Last we checked, the bill is now Senate-bound, sponsored by Senators Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat, and Susan Collins, a Republican. All 20 women senators have signed on as co-sponsors.


When will it see the light of day? The vote has not been scheduled yet. Of course.


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