Women optimistic about drive for a women's history museum

SPOKESWOMAN: "We are not asking for a check -- we want to give them a check," actress Meryl Streep said of the effort. (Jahi Chikwendiu/the Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 3, 2010

In Washington, sometimes process gets in the way of passion.

Consider the efforts to get a National Women's History Museum started, an idea that has been germinating for 15 years.

In 1995, the 75th anniversary of women receiving the right to vote, a group formed to have a marble sculpture of women's rights advocates Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton moved from the basement of the Capitol to the Rotunda. That took almost two years, and the group had to raise $86,000 to move the seven-ton sculpture.

After that victory, the organizers kept bringing up the idea that Washington, and the Mall in particular, was ignoring an important swath of American history and needed a women's history museum. Their legislative fight began with the sponsors suggesting existing locations, such as the annex at the Old Post Office Building and the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries building.

For seven years, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has introduced legislation to establish such a museum, and it passed the House last October and a key Senate committee in April.

The bill simply names a desired site at 12th Street and Independence Avenue SW. It stresses that the museum planners will pay for the federal land and build the museum with private money. The estimated cost is $150 million.

"The only political statement we are making is to correct omissions in history," Collins said at a gala dinner last month.

Backers have accumulated $8 million and say they sense some momentum. But there's the Washington caveat: Two senators, Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), placed a hold on the measure in July, blocking a vote before the full Senate. "At a time when we face a crushing national debt of more than $13 trillion and annual deficits of more than $1 trillion, it is simply not the appropriate role of this Congress to approve legislation with the potential to put taxpayers on the hook for millions of dollars for purposes of establishing an entity that is duplicative of more than 100 existing federal, state, and private efforts," Coburn wrote in a letter to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

So the organizers did what their suffragist predecessors did: started a petition. This time, an online petition.

Meryl Streep summed up the frustration at a fundraising dinner at the Mandarin Oriental hotel recently: "We are not asking for a check -- we want to give them a check."

The actress has been the campaign's honorary spokeswoman since 2006, when she made a video appealing for support. The museum would tell the story of women, some famous and others forgotten, who contributed to American history, sports, politics, medicine, business and culture. To increase their campaign's visibility, the staff of the museum effort and historians have created an online museum, with features such as a history of women in early film, and developed education materials for teachers and traveling exhibits. The online museum, NWHM.org, links to 28,000 education institutions, the organizers say.

The planners are staunchly optimistic. "The more people of means and significant resources step forward and express interest, the more confident we are that we are on the right track," says Joan Bradley Wages, a businesswoman and lobbyist who has been president of the museum group since 2007. Because she hasn't found a women's history museum in any other capital city, she says, the fundraising will be worldwide.

One part of this history has been painstakingly preserved at the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum, which is closed until March for renovations. A historic house on Capitol Hill that was built in 1800, the mansion was purchased in 1929 by the National Woman's Party and was home for 40 years to Alice Paul, one of the party's founders. The records of that movement, formed to win the vote for women, are part of the Sewall-Belmont House's collection. The museum also houses what is considered the country's first feminist library and more than 100 banners carried by the suffragists, editions of the newspaper of the NWP, and more than 5,000 prints and photographs. The museum also has desks used by Anthony and by Paul, and Cady Stanton's chair.

Improvements are being made to the physical structure and the collection with a $2 million grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services and the National Park Service.

The Sewell-Belmont House started an online photo exhibit on Aug. 26, the anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, and anyone can place on the site a photograph of a woman he or she admires. Recently, at a lunch on a rooftop with a view of the Capitol, Sewall-Belmont museum officials honored Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Surely the first female speaker of the House would have a place in a future women's history museum.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company