Women's Museum Supporters Renew Efforts in the House

Actress Meryl Streep narrates a video that urges the establishment of a National Women's History Museum.
Actress Meryl Streep narrates a video that urges the establishment of a National Women's History Museum. (By Markus Schreiber -- Associated Press)
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 3, 2006

The effort to establish the National Women's History Museum in Washington was revived yesterday.

The idea passed in the Senate last year. Supporters have now launched a push to convince the House of the museum's merit.

Susan Collins (R-Maine) led the fight to get a bill through the Senate that asked the General Services Administration to negotiate to put the museum in a government-owned building on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. The museum's supporters want the empty three-story structure, known as the Old Post Office Pavilion Annex, near the Ronald Reagan Building.

The founders and a coalition of women's professional groups said the museum would provide a solid understanding of the roles women have played in the nation's history and correct an oversight in the lineup of Washington museums.

The exhibitions would tell "the inspiring stories of how trailblazing women made significant contributions to the quality of life we all enjoy," said Susan B. Jollie, a Washington lawyer who is the project's president. "Our mission is to add women's stories to the historic record, not subtract from or compete with the recognition that men have deservedly received for their lives' work."

At a news conference yesterday at the National Press Club, the founders of the group showed a video narrated by actress Meryl Streep that they are sending to every member of the House. In her narration, Streep talks about women as the "backbone of society. Women whose ideas and discoveries have greatly improved the country and world in which we live. Their stories have been lost or ignored."

In one segment, Streep says Washington is known for commemorating achievements in museums. She rattles off the list: spaceflight, the military, architecture, African Americans, Native Americans and even, she seems to note with a sniff, "postal stamps."

In Washington, there are several places to sample the achievements of women. The National Museum of Women in the Arts, five blocks north of the Old Post Office Pavilion on New York Avenue NW, showcases contributions to art and design. The Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery and the Vietnam Women's Memorial on the Mall commemorate those who served in the military.

The history museum's supporters raised $85,000 and led the 1997 effort to move a statue of suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott out of the Capitol crypt and into the Rotunda.

There are a number of public places in the District where visitors can learn about women's history, including the Sewell-Belmont House, which is the headquarters of the National Women's Party and the former home of Equal Rights Amendment author Alice Paul; and the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House, the first headquarters for the National Council of Negro Women and last Washington home of the educator.

Paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe and Mary Cassatt are housed in several of the city's museums. Amelia Earhart is remembered at the National Air and Space Museum. And some of the most popular Smithsonian exhibitions are the inaugural gowns of U.S. first ladies and the ruby slippers Judy Garland wore as Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz."

Yet museums devoted to women's history are scarce in the United States. The Women's Museum: An Institute for the Future opened in Dallas in 2000 and struggled financially for several years. Last year, it reported a surplus and increased attendance. The National Park Service runs the Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, N.Y. Museums about women's stories have been on the drawing boards for years in New York and San Francisco.

Part of the Old Post Office Pavilion Annex can be seen from Pennsylvania Avenue, and it is surrounded on three sides by the Internal Revenue Service, a coziness that taxpaying women might find interesting. The exterior of the pavilion is steel and glass, and the interior is organized like a shopping mall. It was designed as a retail space, but the stores failed shortly after opening in 1992. Putting the museum in a converted mall is a fact that the founders find an amusing but pleasing coincidence. And since the covering is glass, the founders are also tossing around the idea of naming the de rigueur dining spot the Glass Ceiling.

"The central ingredient is location, and the biggest attraction is [that] the annex is an empty building and we could bring our program online. We are raring to go," Jollie said. The space includes an unfinished auditorium.

Once the plans are set and approved, the founders want to apply to become an affiliate of the Smithsonian. That arrangement would simply involve the lending of artifacts.

The building was part of a public-private partnership to complement the historic post office next door. The retail center never caught on and closed in 1995, according to the General Services Administration. After the private company's bankruptcy, the administration took over the annex. It has not decided whether to open up bidding on the property.

The museum group wants Congress to order the General Services Administration to provide a long-term lease, the terms of which have not been determined.

The museum group expects start-up costs to be about $150 million, which would be raised privately. That is less than the $168 million it took to open the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The annex would have about 100,000 square feet. The Holocaust Museum is more than double that, with 265,000 square feet, including a permanent exhibition that takes up 36,000 square feet.

It would also be much smaller than the Newseum, a privately funded facility about the news business that is opening on Pennsylvania Avenue in fall 2007. That corner building claims 206,000 square feet. Before it closed its original location in Rosslyn, it attracted 500,000 visitors a year.

In the decade since it was founded, the national women's museum group has raised at least $5 million, using it for temporary exhibits, newsletters and campaigns, Jollie said.

The envisioned Washington museum will be independent, run by its board and raising money from the public. A team of academics has suggested several themes: the fight for legal opportunities, including voting; activism through philanthropic and service organizations; the record of female business owners; and homemakers who "served as primary conduits for transporting culture."

"The discussions were about how programs would look in a museum. These are academic suggestions that have to be translated into public history," said Joan B. Wages, the group's senior vice president. "These would be movement stories, not a hall of fame."

The stories are plentiful, women's organization leaders say. Erin Fuller, executive director of the National Association of Women Business Owners, said that in 1777, the firm of Mary K. Goddard printed the first signed copy of the Declaration of Independence.

The group has conducted one direct-mail campaign and has recruited more than 30,000 members, with help from former astronaut Sally Ride and Streep.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company