Forum Journal: “Every Story Told”: Centering Women’s History

By Forum Online posted 12-19-2018 17:22


This issue of the Forum Journal examines the preservation and interpretation of sites associated with women’s history—which means, to some degree, all historic sites.

We have dedicated the issue to two inspiring preservationists whose work was foundational to our practice of preserving and interpreting women’s history sites: Karen Nickless and Bobbie Greene McCarthy. Karen Nickless was a lifelong women’s history scholar who used her time working at the National Trust for Historic Preservation to ensure that we fully incorporated women’s stories into our portfolio of National Treasures. And, as the director of Save America’s Treasures, Bobbie Greene McCarthy broadened the scope and mission of that program to advance the preservation of women’s history.


To present this issue, we are honored to recall Bobbie Greene McCarthy through the words of Fiona Lawless. Fiona was program manager of Save America’s Treasures at the National Trust for 10 years. She delivered this moving tribute at Bobbie’s memorial service in September 2017.

I met Bobbie in 2001, when I joined her at Save America’s Treasures—or SAT—at the National Trust. We worked side by side for more than a decade—literally side by side, our desks were only two feet apart! Bobbie and I were very close, and I loved her very much. We were not only colleagues, not only friends, we were self-appointed sisters. I can still remember that first day, being greeted by this gorgeous, vivacious woman who said with a big smile on her face, “Hi! I’m Bobbie!” Little did I know at the time what a blessing and honor it was going to be to work with and have such a close relationship with this American treasure.

Bobbie was always a natural storyteller. As director of Save America’s Treasures, she was uniquely able to translate the esoteric and academic aspects of historic preservation into meaningful common parlance, while illuminating the compelling human stories that brought these places to life, and into a modern context. Under Bobbie’s leadership, what was intended to last for two years triumphed for 12!

Bobbie cultivated bipartisan support from Congress as well as vital help from First Lady Hillary Clinton and later First Lady Laura Bush and SAT co-chairs Richard Moe, then president of the National Trust, and Susan Eisenhower, noted author and granddaughter of President Dwight Eisenhower. Bobbie always found meaningful ways to engage with these leaders, whether it was connecting Mrs. Clinton to the extraordinary work of a small group of impassioned volunteers eager to preserve Eleanor Roosevelt’s legacy or developing a tour for Mrs. Bush that focused on the historic homes of some of our literary leaders—like Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, Edith Wharton’s The Mount, or the home of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Richard Moe … asked me to share these memories from his time working with Bobbie:

Bobbie Greene McCarthy [was] my colleague and my friend. When Bobbie first arrived at the National Trust to take charge of the private side of the newly established Save America’s Treasures program … it was like a cyclone had arrived! Take charge Bobbie did, with energy, enthusiasm, and a radiant spirit that was her defining characteristic. She rallied volunteers and donors to help with historic sites important to them: libraries, churches, and courthouses—and, of course, the homes and places associated with Americans who made significant contributions to our society. It came as no surprise to anyone … that an extraordinary number of the latter were women: one of the very first grants went to the Sewall Belmont House here in Washington, D.C., known for its role in women’s history, while others went to the bus that Rosa Parks made a civil rights icon; Betsy Ross’ Star-Spangled Banner; and certainly one of Bobbie’s favorites, Val Kill, the Hyde Park home of Eleanor Roosevelt, where she assembled a group of incredibly committed supporters. …

When she was on her game, she became an irresistible force, and because of that, together with Hillary [Clinton]’s leadership and the work of thousands of people who cared about their heritage, Save America’s Treasures became the most significant public/private preservation effort in the history of the country. Bobbie made a tremendous difference in this effort, and as a result, you can find her legacy in communities all over America.

I was fortunate during this time to get to know Bobbie personally as well as professionally. Our offices at the Trust were adjacent, and we both had a habit of showing up early. She would invariably wander into my office about 8 o’clock with a cup of coffee and the latest news about Hillary, but we … what I remember best from these conversations was another side of Bobbie—soft, reflective and sensitive, especially where her family was concerned. … The same was true of her friends... It was a great privilege to be a friend of Bobbie’s, and I can’t believe she is gone. I will miss her very much and will continue to be inspired by her passion for our shared heritage.

The accomplishments Dick Moe referred to include the Star-Spangled Banner—the flag that inspired our national anthem. It was donated to the Smithsonian Institution in 1912, and after nearly a century, it eventually had deteriorated. Bobbie noted a connection between this iconic symbol and the Ralph Lauren brand, which at the time displayed the American flag on much of its collection. She worked her magic and not only was she able to raise enough to match a $3 million federal SAT grant but she also raised more than $18 million in private support—including $13 million from the Polo Ralph Lauren Corporation. Ten years later, the National Museum of American History celebrated its grand reopening with the Star-Spangled Banner installed in the newly designed Flag Hall as the centerpiece of the remodeled museum. So next time you go to see the flag, think of Bobbie.

Since Bobbie’s passing, other SAT project heads wrote about her contributions to helping save the incredible diversity of the SAT sites and collections that represent important threads within the tapestry of our country’s heritage and reflect the program’s extraordinary range and collaborative spirit. These include Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, the African Meeting House, the Angel Island Immigration Center, Mesa Verde, and the Acoma Pueblo.

As Dick Moe referenced earlier, several women’s sites were near and dear to Bobbie, like the Sewall-Belmont House [now the Belmont-Paul House] in Washington, D.C. Another unique treasure very close to Bobbie’s heart is Eleanor Roosevelt’s Home at Val Kill—not just for the site but also for its volunteers. She called these lovely ladies her “Steel Magnolias,”— with elegance and grace, they rolled up their sleeves and opened their hearts and checkbooks, inspiring others to do the same along the way, to preserve Val-Kill, the only national park dedicated to a First Lady. Bobbie’s relationship with Val-Kill and the legacy she leaves there, is best told through the words of Claudine Bacher, an original Steel Magnolia:

I have thought of Bobbie as my own personal Eleanor Roosevelt. She was a humanitarian, unflappable, smart, possessed of a unique sense of humor and adventure, and never took credit for her good works. She inspired loyalty, to say the least.

In honor of Bobbie’s tremendous legacy, The Val-Kill Partnership and Tourism Cares launched the Bobbie Greene McCarthy Memorial Project at Val-Kill. The ultimate goal is to provide an even more enriching learning experience for educational programs, speakers forums, and other activities—ensuring that Eleanor Roosevelt’s story as a champion for social change and human rights, and the unique preservation story of Val-Kill, can continue to illuminate and inspire the next generation.

If Bobbie could be with us here today, I think she would tell us that her life’s greatest joys and proudest moments were not about her achievements, of which there were so many. What I think she would tell us is that what brought her the greatest happiness was her family and the many enduring friendships she made along the way. If we can learn anything from her extraordinary life, it would be to continue those friendships with open hearts and minds. As our dear Bobbie would so often say, be good to each other.

Those who knew Bobbie will recognize her in the words of her friends and colleagues. Her idealism, passion, and zeal are not soon forgotten. Both Bobbie and Karen were committed to advancing the interpretation of women’s history not only at the National Trust but also in the preservation field. The impact of their work will continue reverberating through the movement for years to come, even as both of them are greatly missed.

The articles in this issue explore a variety of approaches to telling women’s stories—as well as the many frequently “othered” stories with which women’s stories intersect—and examine how underrepresentation at sites echoes broader social and political concerns. The authors describe efforts to address the scarcity of women’s stories and imagine a democratized future for preservation in which the experiences of women and other historically marginalized groups are given full weight in our shared American story.

Table of Contents

  • Dedication: For Bobbie and Karen by Stephanie Meeks
  • Introduction: Understanding Our National Story Through Women’s History Sites by Stephanie Toothman
  • Women’s History Doesn’t Begin or End: An Interview with Turkiya Lowe by Sandi Burtseva
  • Gender, Race, and Class in the Work of Julia Morgan by Karen McNeill
  • “Women Are Everywhere”: Celebrating The Women’s Building by Donna Graves
  • A New Demonstration for a New Era: Collecting the 2017 Women’s March on Washington by Lisa Kathleen Graddy
  • Three Steps Toward a Radically Effective Preservation Movement by Meagan Baco

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