Honoring Women Throughout History
With the signing of the December 2020 stimulus bill, the creation of the Smithsonian Museum dedicated solely to women is underway. Historians talk to us about which American Women and movements they’d like to see in the museum and why.
By Mia Mercer ‘23
The stimulus bill that was signed in December 2020 not only provided aid to families struggling during the coronavirus pandemic but also approved the creation of a Smithsonian Museum dedicated solely to women.
In order to learn more about women’s history and how the creation of the American Museum of Women’s History will affect our society, the College of Liberal Arts talked to historians Sonia Hernandez and Sarah McNamara to get their insight on the subject. Through these interviews, which have been condensed and edited for clarity, we learned a little about the history and some of the women these Aggie historians hope to see on display soon in Washington D.C.
What does Women’s History Month mean to you?
McNamara: I see Women’s History Month as essential to our national and global understanding of the way women have shaped the world in which we live. Popular conceptions of history often overlook the influence of women or erase women fully. If someone were to ask the average person about a particular moment in history and in turn that person closed their eyes, the odds that they would envision a woman is low. But, women make and have made history. Women’s History Month brings attention to this fact.
It’s important to remember, however, that women’s history is not a singular story. Women, like all people, experience the world in relation to their class, race, ethnicity, and politics. Women’s History Month is not a celebration of one history of womanhood but the history of many women whose lives intersect. Women have the ability to both empower each other and oppress each other. This reality is a part of women’s history and a crucial component of Women’s History Month.
Who are the women in history who have influenced you the most?
Hernandez: My grandmothers and mother had an enormous influence on me as they lived during challenging moments but overcame so much with so little. Both my paternal and maternal grandmother were ranch women who were quite self-reliant; they cared for animals, grew their own crops, took care of large families. My mother was a seamstress who sewed other people’s clothes for almost 20 years working from home. While she only received up to a third-grade education, she taught me the values of respect, work, and standing up for myself.
With respect to ‘better-known women,’ I’d say women like Jovita Idar, Ida B. Wells, and other lesser-known women such as Reynalda Gonzalez Parra. Idar and Wells raised awareness of the horrific practice of lynching Mexican-origin and African American people and fought to find ways to end that violence. This is crucial, as violence was not just enacted by racist vigilantes. Violence was too often endorsed by the state via the use of elite law enforcement agents such as the Texas Rangers.
McNamara: The women who influence me, and I’d venture to say, influence many people are those whose names most do not know– the women of our families and the women of our communities. I am a scholar of Latina histories in the U.S. South, a topic few researched and a topic with little popular understanding. The history I examined in my first book emerges from the stories I heard at the dinner table. I grew up learning about the women in my family who immigrated to Florida from Cuba and Spain, who worked in factories, who protested the rise of fascism, and who rose as labor and political activists. These women, my ancestors, did these things between the turn of the twentieth century and the 1950s– a period not typically understood as the pinnacle of women-driven political influence and power. The work of these women did not preclude them from being mothers, daughters, aunts, and friends, but it meant that the stereotype of women entering the U.S. workforce during WWII is more a convenient trope than a reality.
It is stories like these, those that may not be remembered as “important” that truly shape the world we live in and who we are.
How have women in history influenced your life today?
Hernandez: I’d like to point out the case of Reynalda Gonzalez Parra who was a co-founder of the Tampico, Mexico branch of the Casa del Obrero Mundial (the House of the Global Worker) which was an organization that resembled the goals of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World co-founded by Lucy Parsons in Chicago)
Gonzalez Parra was an educator influenced by the ideas of Barcelones Francisco Ferrer who promoted the idea of gender equity via an educational model informed by the basic idea that girls and boys should be taught the same things beginning at an early age. This was known as the ‘escuelas racionalistas.’ Gonzalez Parra practiced such ideas and did not simply preach them. She participated in school excursions to factories in Mexico City during the early 20th century to allow children to witness workers’ experiences firsthand. She was the lone female delegate at the second national workers’ congress held in Tampico in 1917. Her ideas reached women from the United States via the sharing of newspapers across borders.
To do the things that Gonzalez Parra did during this time period was quite remarkable; she was ahead of her time and gave me the courage to do the things that are right, even when all odds are against you.
McNamara: You know those shirts that say, “I am my ancestor’s wildest dream,” it is that ethos that influences my life. I would not be a professor if women in the past had not blazed that trail for me. Even the idea that women can be experts and authorities is relatively new, and not something everyone accepts. The women who inspire my life did not necessarily do things you may see as “important.” But, they did advocate for themselves and fight to be heard. For example, don’t underestimate the woman who disagrees with the loudest man at the dinner table. The same goes for the young woman in a college classroom who dared to raise her hand and disagree with someone else. I’m sure you’ve been there, it takes courage to speak your mind. I like to think that it is the compilation of these seemingly insignificant decisions that guide my life and my choices in big ways.
Why do you think the creation of this museum is necessary, if at all?
Hernandez: I am absolutely thrilled that Congress approved both a Smithsonian Women’s History Museum and a Smithsonian National Museum of the American Latino. Reflecting upon historical moments, figures, and historical processes helps us all be better equipped to deal with contemporary issues and challenges.
Learning about the myriad contributions of two misrepresented and underrepresented groups in American history is learning about American history in a fuller, more comprehensive way. US history is complex with dark chapters as well as episodes of triumph, successes, and hope. Knowledge about our past in all of its facets and complexities not only makes us more aware of the different actors and moments that make up our nation’s history but prepares us to listen to different viewpoints.
McNamara: The creation of this museum is essential. It has the ability if done well, to reshape popular conceptions of women’s influences on national histories. As a historian, there is nothing that I see more clearly than the power that museums and monuments have on people’s believed knowledge of history. Museums that have inaccurate or poor historical interpretation and monuments that obscure reality are particularly damaging because they promote a version of the past (not history) that is based on myth rather than sound research. Professional historians are rarely consulted on monument creation and museums rarely employ professional historians.
The Smithsonian operates by a different standard and professional historians are typically involved in the curation and design process. This museum is an opportunity to create a powerful museum of women’s history that does not essentialize the experiences of women to one narrative or celebrate a few big names. There are models of how to do this well, some of them on the National Mall, and I hope those involved in the creation of the museum follow these models of curation.
To be clear, the Women’s History Museum is the result of decades of advocacy by women’s historians, women’s rights activists, and women politicians. While the 2020 Stimulus granted the federal money and support, the drive to create this museum has been a long process. Not only is the museum necessary, but it is also overdue.
How do you think this museum will benefit the public?
Hernandez: Museums, in my opinion, reflect the cultural values of a community; a museum featuring the many voices of women who have left a mark on this country is to legitimize women, to recognize their presence, to make them visible.
It’s like getting that long-awaited stamp of approval. Imagine what these institutions will represent for future children to grow up in a country with dedicated funding and dedicated spaces for these communities. This will go a long way in helping kids grow up with a different idea about groups of people long seen as peripheral to big history.
McNamara: The Women’s History Museum presents an opportunity to see women as central to the History of the United States. However, the benefit of the museum, in terms of the knowledge visitors gain, depends on the curation and design of the museum. If done well, this museum will have an unparalleled influence on popular knowledge of women’s histories.
What do you hope the museum visitors will take away from visiting the museum?
Hernandez: I hope the visitors will take away a sense of connection, a sense of broader knowledge of a more diverse group of American historical actors, a sense of belonging.
McNamara: I hope visitors walk away from the museum with four core lessons. First, that women have always worked. Second, for as long as women have been able to become pregnant, women have controlled their reproductive lives. Third, those women have always been involved in political decisions. And finally, that “women” is not a singular category or a singular story.
A woman’s race, class, ethnicity shape their experiences, choices, and lives. For example, last year was the centennial of the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment, but the simple passage of this amendment did not make it possible for all women to vote. For example, in states like Texas discriminatory laws such as poll taxes, and the threat of extralegal violence, made it nearly impossible for most Black women and many Latinas to vote in the state. It took the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act to change this. This reality means that while white women can celebrate the 100 years of suffrage, that will not be a reality for many women of color until 2065. I hope these nuances are a part of the museum.
If you were going to visit the museum, what would you look forward to seeing most?
Hernandez: I would look forward to seeing little-known women, connections between regional women’s activities/histories with greater national moments/histories, firm connections between women from disparate communities but who have all contributed and formed part of this greater narrative of American history.
McNamara: I would look forward to a museum that is diverse and representative of the varied experiences of womanhood. There is a myth that all by virtue of being a woman that all women unite and empower each other equally. While at times this is true, oftentimes it is not. Women can unite on the basis of being women, but women can also oppress other women. I hope the museum does not shy away from stories of labor movements, immigration, racism, and sexism.
The most recent Smithsonian added to the National Mall–the National Museum of African American History and Culture– is absolutely phenomenal. But what makes it so good is that it was designed to immerse the visitor in a history that is factual and grounded in sound research. A visit to this museum has the ability to leave a visitor feeling empowered, saddened, enlightened, and uncomfortable at the same time because the history told in this museum is not intended to gloss over portions of U.S. history that we often try to hide. Histories of triumph have power as do those of trauma. I hope the National Women’s History Museum remembers to call on the expertise of the many U.S. women’s historians throughout the nation to create a museum that celebrates women, in the plural, rather than one definition of woman– even if that makes some uncomfortable.
Who are some prominent figures that you would like to see exemplified in the museum? Why?
McNamara: I’d like to see a history of women that is more than a history of big names. I’d love to see those like Emma Tenayuca (a labor organizer from Texas), Luisa Moreno (a labor organizer from Guatemala who traveled and organized women throughout the U.S.), Ida B. Wells (the famed African American journalist from Mississippi who waged a national campaign against the lynching of Black men), Pauli Murray (lawyer, civil and women’s rights activist, Episcopal priest, and writer) and so many more.
As the museum takes on histories of World War II, I hope the stories of Japanese-American women in U.S. internment camps are as present as the testimonies of many Rosie riveters. My hope is that a visitor leaves the museum seeing themselves in the story that is told and that they learn what it is like to live a life unlike their own.
What movements do you think should be showcased in the museum? Why?
Hernandez: I would like to see work experience before World War II (as popular misconception is that women did not work for wages before World War II) especially work performed at home for wages, various cultural groups engaged in suffrage, women in politics, and science, women’s diversity in the humanities and social sciences, and women who had an impact across geo-political borders.
McNamara: First and foremost the labor movement. Movements for labor-based equality are essential to women’s history. When I say labor, I do not mean simply the fight for equal pay– although this is part of it– but also the fight for women’s right to have control over their labor, their bodies, and their work. In the twentieth century, women who were active in labor unions during the 1930s went on to be leaders in the civil rights and women’s rights movements. Understanding these intersections is important.
Next, I hope the movement for reproductive justice is included in the museum. Sometimes people are afraid to discuss this history because it is such a contentious component of our present-day politics. But, if we think about this movement historically, that controversy falls away. Women in Early America controlled their reproductive lives just as those in the present seek to do. There is nothing “new” about this topic. The history and research are there, it is up to consider it seriously even if it makes some uncomfortable.
How do you think this museum will teach others about women’s successes and struggles throughout history?
Hernandez: It will leave a lasting legacy on all of us I think, as it will help to highlight women’s accomplishments and struggles, today and in years past.
McNamara: A person does not have to add an element to the periodic table to make their life successful or worthy of inclusion in a museum. I hope the museum teaches visitors that the decision of an enslaved woman who refused to work in the field one day was as powerful as the women who led the feminist movement in the 1960s. Success cannot be measured by a singular metric. I hope visitors learn the many ways women succeeded, failed, thrived, resisted, and influenced the nation. That’s a tall order, but that’s a museum I’d love to visit.