It’s Time To Celebrate Women’s History Month
In celebration of March Women’s History Month, I’m pleased to share my interview with Jennifer Herrera, Vice President of External Affairs for the National Women’s History Museum. I enjoyed learning about the important work that this organization is doing to bring women’s stories to the forefront. Like me, I hope once you read about their efforts you’ll want to know more. The best thing is that this museum is virtual. You can partake in many of the activities and programs from the comfort of your own home.
Here excerpts from my talk with Jennifer:
How and when was the National Women’s History Museum (NWHM) founded?
Jennifer: “We were founded in 1996. Our founder Karen Staser came to Washington, D.C. when her husband worked for a senator. She looked around and noticed that women’s representation was largely missing from public display —in a town full of monuments there weren’t women and in a town full of museums there weren’t any women represented. She literally asked where are the women? That question ignited her path to bring women’s history into public display and make it accessible nationwide.”
Karen’s letter “From the Crypt to the Capitol Rotunda” about the creation of the NWHM is inspirational. Tell me more.
Jennifer: “In our first act as an organization we fought to bring back a portrait monument of three suffragists, which was on display in the Capitol Rotunda in 1920 after the passage of the 19th amendment. After the ratification, 5000 people came to the celebration of women’s suffrage. The very next day on the orders of Congress, this huge sculpture was sent to the Capitol’s basement, also known as the crypt. It’s striking that this heavy thing got moved to the basement. It was symbolic of hiding women from history.
Karen and her team of tenacious women and men worked to bring this statue back to it’s rightful place in the Capitol Rotunda. On Mother’s Day in 1997, they finally realized their vision and it was moved back. That was 77 years later! It was a long and expensive fight to bring it back and it really kicked off our journey as an institution to ensure women’s history is integrated into the fabric of our national narrative.”
How is NWHM a virtual museum?
Jennifer: “We’re a private institution and are primarily a virtual museum with some physical exhibitions. We’ve existed primarily online for many years while we worked to fight for a physical brick and mortar museum on the National Mall.
When we started we knew we had to get women’s history in homes and in curriculum to develop and share resources far and wide. The way to do that was to create a robust compendium online for people to have access to — whether it’s a student doing a research project or an educator looking for resources to integrate into their classroom.”
What about other programming and events?
Jennifer: “Simultaneously we want to bring women’s history across the country. We do that through women’s programming and events. Soon we will be bringing women’s history across the country through exhibitions.
We’re kicking off our first huge interactive exhibition in D.C. the end of this month in partnership with D.C. Public Library. It’s called “We Who Believe in Freedom: Black Feminists.” It will open at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library on March 30th.
As an institution, we’re going to bring physical exhibitions on women’s history to local communities across the country through partnerships with like organizations. We’re beginning in D.C. and will expand to other cities.”
Has the focus of NWHM changed over the years?
Jennifer: “We’ve been really steadfast about amplifying women. We’re a storytellers and our mission is to make sure that women’s voices, accomplishments and contributions are included in the fabric of our national narrative. How we do that has changed and expanded greatly over the years to have a wider scope and variety of resources.
At our core is how do we amplify women’s stories from throughout history and make sure they are included in our historical record. That extends well beyond the history books too.
Women are 51% of the population yet we are woefully underrepresented in all facets of society from our currency to representation in board rooms to the Halls of Congress or even local school boards. Women need to be present in all places of knowledge and power. You can’t tell an inclusive history without having women’s contributions. Women have been there all along but we’ve not been consistently represented. We’ve been very true to that mission and been able to expand significantly.”
Will there ever be a Women’s History Museum in D.C.?
Jennifer: “We funded a Congressional commission to study that there needed to be a women’s history museum on the National Mall. We are thrilled that Congress finally passed legislation and signed into law in 2020 to build a Women’s History Museum on the National Mall. It will be a Smithsonian Museum, which is not us, but we were instrumental in that entire legislative process.
Women have seen roadblocks time and again to have their voices heard. The fact that there needed to be a study about whether there should be a museum dedicated to women’s history says it all. Our organization funded this study because we knew that of course there needs to be a museum dedicated to women’s history in our nation’s Capitol. That was a huge accomplishment.
We’re excited to now further our mission to bring women’s history across the country. People will be able to continue to access women’s history from their own homes and schools through the vital role we play in the digital world and virtual space.
Will you be involved with development of the Smithsonian Museum?
Jennifer: “We are separate entities. The legislation calls for two of our board members to sit on the Advisory Board for the Smithsonian Museum, which is excellent. That museum is at least 10 years away because these museums take a long time to build. What is cool about the legislation that passed was that not only will there be a new Smithsonian of women’s history but there will also be a new museum dedicated to Latina history.
We’re really proud of this achievement because our Nation’s Capitol deserves that. Women deserve that.
What do you still hope to accomplish?
Jennifer: “We’re excited about our new partnership model to bring women’s history across the country through physical exhibitions and in-person programs. We want to continue to amplify women’s voices. We have been largely absent for so much for so long.
For example, we serve as consultants to the U.S. Mint and Women’s Coin Program. We recommended who should be on quarters. We are so proud to be part of this project. We are so proud to go across the country celebrating the women on the coins. For instance we were just in Chicago celebrating the Bessie Coleman quarter release. We know people are hungry for women’s history. They are inspired and empowered by women’s history. We want to ensure that we continue this vital work.”
How can baby boomer women support your efforts?
Jennifer: “We’re grateful to the many people who join our museum as members and help support this work financially. That is huge because our work is to make it accessible and we don’t want cost to be a barrier to access. But we do need to operate and rely on the generosity of our members.
Your generation did champion women’s advancement and we have to keep it up. For many years we’ve had to play catch up and to uncover as a society stories that have traditionally been underrepresented. We should never be in that position again to remedy past exclusion.
The way to do that is to amplify these stories today. Sharing stories — whether it’s a newspaper article or talking to kids and grandkids about women’s contributions — there are so many ways we can celebrate and communicate women’s stories. It doesn’t have to be big ways, it can be small ways — like the books you buy for children, articles you share with family members — really being cognizant of past exclusion and working to a place where we’re all being more inclusive in history.
We have a robust calendar of virtual and some in-person events, it’s so wonderful to have virtual audiences. And you can do it on your own time. I would suggest that your readers join us for some of the topics, especially about women they may not be familiar with. Sharing our resources is another great way to amplify accessibility.”
Note: The NWHM has a great online shop with 100% of the sales going to support the work of NWHM.
What is your awards gala?
Jennifer: “It’s such a special evening. It’s our Women Making History Awards Gala 2023, which is our signature program that we’ve been doing for many years. It honors trailblazing women and their contributions to our country past and present. It’s such an inspiring evening. I can’t tell you how good it feels to be in that room, not to honor just the women on the stage but to honor women at large. The women on the stage are representative of the many women that came before them and the doors that women opened for other women and the glass ceilings that are shattered that make it easier for women who follow.
This year we are honoring several extraordinary women including leaders such as Miss Willy Pearl Mackey King, Civil Rights Activist, who was secretary to Martin Luther King. Miss King was responsible for transcribing the pieces of trash paper that were from MLK’s jail. What she transcribed became “Letter from Birmingham Jail. “ The important role she has played in civil rights and like her, the many numerous women who were the back bone of the civil rights movement, don’t get recognized.
This event is coming back after three years. The last Gala was in Los Angeles right before the world shut down in March 2020. We’re excited to bring it back to D.C. and gather together after so many years. And it won’t be a one off so I hope you can join us at a future event.”
Thank you Jennifer for the insights about the National Women’s History Museum. I’m so inspired by the work of the NWHM team. I hope I can attend one of your Galas in the future.
Happy Women’s History Month!