Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A National Women's History Museum Without Historians of Women

In the New Republic, historian Sonya Michel has written a scathing indictment (with a response and followup) of the "National Women's History Museum," a group dedicated to making a real museum on the Mall in D.C. 

According to the piece (and many other historians, including - full disclosure here - my mother), the NWHM has gone out of their way to distance themselves from actual professional historians, instead presenting an out-moded, superficial, amateur, and often inaccurate face of women's history.

The story is important for its own sake, but it also reveals a much longer contest over the stories we want to tell about discrimination, progress, and the relevance of such issues in today’s society.

Since its founding, the NWHM operated without any input from scholars. Finally, though, a few years ago, some very important scholars were invited to form an advisory board and to help the NWHM with their project. Sadly, that collaboration has now ended.

“Last month,” Michel writes, “Joan Wages, the president and CEO of the National Women’s History Museum, abruptly informed me and my fellow historians on the museum’s Scholarly Advisory Council that our services were no longer needed. For three years, we had been trying to help Wages’ nonprofit organization develop an overall vision for the institution it hopes to build on the National Mall.”

Why this abrupt end to the collaboration? Michel suggests that while history is often messy; these people wanted to tell a clean, simple, positivist story. She continues:

In mid-March, the museum announced that it had launched a new online exhibit, “Pathways to Equality: The U.S. Women’s Rights Movement Emerges,” in conjunction with the Google Cultural Institute. Never informed that the exhibit was in the works, much less given an opportunity to vet it, we were appalled to discover that it was riddled with historical errors and inaccuracies. To pick just one example: Harriet Beecher Stowe was described as having been “born into a family of abolitionists” when, from the time of her birth through her young adulthood in the 1830s, her family actively opposed the abolitionist movement. “Pathways to Equality,” noted Kathryn Kish Sklar, the nineteenth-century specialist who pointed out the error, “could have been written by a middle-school student.”

Let's not undersell middle school students. Many, in fact, work well with experts (their teachers and parents) to fact-check.  

Michel suggests that at the core is a strong difference between fundamental conceptions of what history, especially women's history, is, does, and is for. She writes:

According to the large-font text, the central theme of the museum was to be the struggle for women’s rights and the triumph of the suffrage movement.

The historians found the focus on “great women” and the acquisition of formal political rights to be outdated and much too narrow to capture the manifold ways in which women have shaped U.S. history. We were also dismayed to note that nearly all of the women pictured on the brochure were white, and several (Mary Wollstonecraft, Olympe de Gouges) not actually American. This sort of thinking about history typifies the NWHM style. Its approach is encapsulated in this statement on its website: “Women's history isn't meant to rewrite history. The objective is to promote scholarship and expand our knowledge of American history.” While most women’s historians would agree with the second part, we would disagree with the first. We have set out to rewrite history. [My emphasis]

This, I think, is the most important detail of Michel’s piece. Beyond the politics and perhaps personalities, there is a fundamental difference on the purpose and nature of history between the enthusiastic amateur and the professional scholar. It’s a split that goes far deeper than the issues at play with the NWHM.

Women's History and many other fields that have emerged in the profession more recently – queer studies and disability studies, for example – have pushed us all, sometimes uncomfortably, to re-examine the past, our own understandings, and to re-structure whatever "master," or perhaps "mistress” (as Judith Bennett writes) narratives of history survive the process. That's as true for my field (medieval) as for U.S. history.

Within contemporary American society, the position of American women in our history remains a subject of intense debate. Michel’s piece coincides with continued debates about paycheck fairness, rape culture, voter suppression, the right of women to have access to birth control, and the rapid proliferation of anti-choice legislation.

These political issues match up with a flurry of articles about whether people interested in gender equality should talk about deep structural problems, bias, and sexism, or whether what women really need to do, in order to achieve equality is to be more confident (or “lean-in”).

Experts in women's history are able to place such contemporary questions in a broad historical context, linking sexism and discrimination now and in the past. That's threatening to a bland positivist master narrative of progress from the "bad old days" before the vote to the good times now.

We need to bring that uneasy re-examination of ourselves, our historical memories, and the stories we tell into the public space. It is the chief work - not fact-checking - of the publicly engaged historian, and it’s clear that there are lots of women’s historians ready to engage.

But we need partners to do it.

It's too bad this organization seems unwilling to risk opening the door.