Existential and Evolving: Women’s History at National Trust Sites

By Katherine Malone-France posted 10-27-2017 13:52

In this post, which concludes the Forum Blog series about women's history and historic preservation, Katherine Malone-France examines the evolving nature of women's history at National Trust for Historic Preservation historic sites. Interested in discussing this post with other readers? Sign up for Forum Connect.  Also remember, as part of our direct-action work to save historic places, the National Trust is interested in soliciting sites associated with women’s history as potential National Treasures.

At National Trust Historic Sites, women’s history is existential. At New Mexico’s Acoma Pueblo, one of the oldest inhabited communities in North America, lineage and inheritance are matrilineal—women are the heads of their households and sole ownership of the houses passes from mothers to their youngest daughters. Mary Weeks’ husband died before construction of The Shadows on the Teche was completed, and she actively stewarded it, as well as the family’s agricultural enterprises, over the next 30 years. The riotous colors of the gardens at Filoli are the work of garden designer Isabella Worn, who developed the plant specifications, supervised the original plantings, and continued to work in the gardens until her death more than 30 years later. And the Farnsworth House, a Modernist icon, is named not for Mies van der Rohe but for the remarkable woman, Dr. Edith Farnsworth—a nephrologist and classically trained violinist—who commissioned and paid for its construction on the banks of the Fox River in Plano, Illinois.

A glimpse of the color in Filoli's gardens, the work of designer Isabella Worn. | Credit: Priya Chhaya

Many of our National Trust Historic Sites were also preserved by women. They were typically motivated not by their own legacies but by the desire to secure the legacies of men—of their husbands, their fathers, or their husbands’ families or of famous men who had occupied or built the homes. By the time she bequeathed Decatur House to the National Trust in 1956, Marie Oge Beale had lived a remarkable life. She travelled to places where few American women had been able to venture in the early 20th century—like Iran and Peru—and became a legendary Washington hostess known for carefully orchestrated receptions for the diplomatic corps and for reprimanding a young Senator John F. Kennedy when he arrived late for dinner at her Lafayette Square home. But it was the legacy of naval hero Stephen Decatur and her husband’s family that she sought to promote and preserve by writing Decatur House and Its Inhabitants; by fighting an executive branch attempt to destroy the residential character of the president’s neighborhood; and ultimately by giving her home to the National Trust to serve as its first formal headquarters and one of its first historic sites.

First Lady Edith Bolling Galt Wilson played a significant—some might say extraconstitutional—role in her husband Woodrow Wilson’s White House after he was incapacitated by a stroke. And it was her husband’s legacy that she sought to preserve when she donated their Washington, D.C., home to serve as a memorial to him. Margaret French Cresson was an accomplished sculptor in her own right, having exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Whitney Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But in preserving her father’s home and studio at Chesterwood, she focused only on his body of work and securing his place in the history of American art. And Marjorie Leighey fought the federal government to save the Pope-Leighey House from demolition not to tell the story of her life there but as an exemplar of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian style of architecture.

Acoma Sky City, a National Trust Historic Site in Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico. | Credit: Douglas Merriam, courtesy of the National Trust for Historic Preservation

However, today we are working to tell the stories of the diversity of women—these and many more—whose histories are intertwined with our sites. Women are widely represented in the collections that we steward and interpret at National Trust Historic Sites—from a wedding bodice and mourning jewelry worn at Drayton Hall in the 19th century to the pottery of Maria Martinez that made its way from New Mexico to Virginia in the 20th century. Villa Finale has just funded a new edition of a book on the prints of Texas artist Mary Bonner, whose work is a part of the National Trust’s  collection there. At The Glass House, the photographs of Lynn Davis are represented both in the permanent collection—in pieces selected by Philip Johnson and David Whitney—and in On Ice, a stunning exhibition currently on view at the site that brings her contemporary work into the site’s Painting Gallery.

For most of its time as a historic site, Lyndhurst has been interpreted with a focus on its architect, Alexander Jackson Davis, and its most famous owner, financier Jay Gould. Today, however, we tell the stories of the mostly immigrant women who lived and worked in the recently restored laundry building. And the Defying Labels exhibition uses the clothes of sisters Anna and Helen Gould to tell the story of the changing roles of women in the 19th century and the barriers that the Gould sisters broke.

One of Helen Gould's dresses displayed in Lyndhurst's Defying Labels exhibition. | Credit: Lyndhurst

At Montpelier, as part of the new Mere Distinction of Colour exhibit, a short film titled “Fate in the Balance” tells the story of Ellen Stewart and her mother Sukey, Dolley Madison’s enslaved personal maid—and the perils of sale, separation, and mistreatment they faced under Dolley’s ownership.

At President Lincoln’s Cottage, students learn about Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, a woman born into slavery in Virginia, who purchased her own freedom and became the dressmaker and confidant of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. At Belle Grove, joint programming with the National Park Service brings to life a woman named Judah who was enslaved and worked as a cook there, even as new archaeological research begins to piece together, artifact by artifact, what her life might have been like. An upcoming play at The Shadows on the Teche will contrast the life of Mary Weeks and her daughters with those of the African American women who were enslaved on the property.

I sometimes wonder what the women who preserved these places would think of the stories we tell there today. What would Marie Beale think about the fact that Decatur House tells the story of Charlotte Dupuy, who was enslaved in the household of Secretary of State Henry Clay when he rented the home and who sued him for her and her children’s freedom? What would Anna and Helen Gould think of our focus on the women who worked in the laundry? What would Elizabeth Carter think about the fact that her carefully kept diary informs our interpretation of Oatlands? We use it not only to tell the story of Carter, a woman who managed a large Virginia plantation through the Civil War and Reconstruction, but also as the basis of a database that allows researchers to identify the men, women, and children who were enslaved on the property. I am certain these women would be surprised, and I am not entirely sure they would be pleased. Many of them lived very privileged lives, their roles and their worlds narrowly defined and their prejudices often representing the worst of their times.

A moment in "Fate in the Balance," a film included in Montpelier's Mere Distinction of Colour exhibition. | Credit: Priya Chhaya

So we don’t do this for them, we do it for ourselves and, even more so, for those who will come after us. We participate in the continuing evolution of these places in order to support their ongoing relevance. I do hope that the women who played critical roles in preserving these places would be pleased that more than half of our National Trust Historic Sites are led by women directors, not to mention the women board and advisory council chairs, curators, educators, horticulturalists, and preservation directors who work every day to make the sites sustainable and relevant for the long term. And I hope they would also appreciate the men who lead and work at our sites, also committed to ensuring that they tell the full stories of the women who shaped them.

Therein, ultimately, lies the power of place. Places hold stories until we catch up to them, until we are curious enough to uncover them and empowered enough to tell them. In this way, places are more powerful than our own narrow understandings of the past and the present. The most successful and sustainable historic sites are the ones where interpretation is not bound by legacies, where we continue to discover new stories and new ways to create meaningful experiences, to tell the stories that haven’t been told. At National Trust Historic Sites, women’s history is existential ... and evolving.

Katherine Malone-France is the vice president for historic sites at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.


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