Meryl Streep, sitting in a hotel conference room and later at a podium at the Ronald Reagan Building, says her personal history has led her to join the effort to establish a National Women’s History Museum.
“My grandmother had three children, and she couldn’t vote in the school board election. She gave my grandfather the piece of paper with her choices,” Streep said last week. Personal stories, unknown bravery, everyday life and the epic personalities should all be part of a building, she argued, in a honeyed voice familiar after 35 years.
“We need a museum. By their monumentality, they claim a place in your heart,” she said, gesturing at some large place in the air, now invisible.
She has found local stories with universal messages. Near her home is a house where Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman, who sued for her freedom, worked for the Ashley family and was abused by the wife.
“She heard the discussion about ‘every man is born free.’ And she was serving tea and stoking the fire,” Streep said. Freeman’s sister was attacked by Mrs. Ashley, but Freeman stepped in front to take the blow from the fireplace shovel. “She was burned on her arm,” said Streep, pushing up her sleeve for emphasis. “But just as interesting is the story of her mistress. If you look at it, both were unpaid workers.”
She shakes her head for emphasis: “Elizabeth Freeman sued for her freedom in 1781. She is up there and more important than Davy Crockett.”
At the museum’s event she discussed the long fight to get the museum authorized by Congress. The museum will be financed by private funds, said the organizers. “We’ve got to pull together, girls, and get this done,” said Streep, whose next movie is about former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Using a British accent, she told the museum audience: “As Margaret Thatcher said if you want something spoken about, ask a man, if you want something done, ask a woman.” That brought applause and a standing ovation.
Last year she surprised the Women’s Museum audience by pledging $1 million for the effort. Was she planning to add to that Wednesday night? She laughed, the same warm chuckled she threw at Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin in “It’s Complicated.” She said, “Oh that was Margaret Thatcher money. I have to make another movie!”
After she left for a trip to China with fellow Kennedy Center Honoree Yo-Yo Ma, the group presented several awards named for Christine de Pizan, considered the first woman writer of Western women, as well as other pioneering men and women. Honored were former U.S. Senator John Warner; media businesswoman Cathy Hughes; robotics developer Helen Greiner and Google designer Marissa Mayer.
In addition to Streep and Ma, the Kennedy Center is honoring Sonny Rollins, Barbara Cook and Neil Diamond