Amplifying Women’s History at Historic Sites

By Kelly Schindler posted 10-19-2017 15:27


The Forum Blog is publishing a series about women's history and historic preservation.  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.

It won't be news to anyone to hear that there is a (well-documented) dearth of historic sites dedicated to, or even incorporating, women’s history in the United States. But many sites across the country are working to close this gap. What are public historians and preservationists getting right? The following examples look at how women’s stories are being presented in more inclusive and dynamic ways. Many of these ideas can be applied to telling other underrepresented histories as well. 

Using Objects to Tell Women’s Stories

In 2016 National Trust Historic Sites Lyndhurst in Tarrytown, New York, and Filoli in Woodside, California, both debuted exhibits featuring clothing and accessories of women who had called these places home. Both of these sites usually conjure up associations with men—for example, Lyndhurst usually brings to mind former owner Jay Gould and architect Alexander Jackson Davis. By using objects from the sites’ collections and that were borrowed and re-created, these spaces were repopulated with tangible evidence of lives, stories, and passions of the women who lived there.

Filoli’s ballroom displaying some of the dresses featured in its exhibit Fashionable Filoli: Historic Costumes. | Credit: Filoli

The President Woodrow Wilson House, National Trust Historic Site in Washington, D.C., also uses objects from its collection to ensure that women’s stories are incorporated into the traditionally male-dominated narrative about a president. Much of Edith Bolling Wilson’s wardrobe and furniture remain in the house, which she donated to the National Trust at the end of her life. The plainly furnished nurse’s room gives visitors a glimpse into the lives of the women who cared for President Wilson in the waning years of his life. The harp and other musical instruments in the upstairs drawing room belonged to President Wilson’s daughter Margaret. 

One of the few objects currently on display at the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice, in Durham, North Carolina—a National Trust National Treasure—is Pauli Murray’s personal address book. As a truly intersectional figure—an African American woman who identified as queer, served as a lawyer and social justice activist, and became an Episcopal priest, for starters—Pauli Murray was closely connected with many notable figures of her day, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Bayard Rustin, and Thurgood Marshall. Her address book provides the public with a tangible link to her personal landscape and shows the broad, powerful reach of her ideas. 

Lesson learned: Objects and collections offer ways to include more women’s stories in the narrative and can provide richer, more varied entry points for visitors.

Getting Creative with Interpretation and Programming

Almost every tour at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City incorporates women’s history, but one educational program looks at tenement life exclusively through the eyes of a young woman. Victoria Confino lived in the building during her childhood in the early 20th century. Today the Tenement Museum, a National Trust Historic Site, trains living historians to portray Victoria and interpret her story for school groups, providing a unique experience for children to relate to a relative peer, as well as job opportunities for young women working in public history. 

At Brucemore—a National Trust Historic Site in Cedar Rapids, Iowa—the Hired Help tour was designed to tell the stories of the people who lived and worked on the estate in the early 20th century. The addition of this tour allows Brucemore to provide a fuller narrative, including a discussion of immigration and domestic issues, and puts the experiences of the many women who labored for Brucemore’s owners back into the landscape.

Interpretation at Belle Grove in Middletown, Virginia | Credit: Belle Grove

The Museum of African American History in Boston, another National Trust Historic Site, offers an immersive and interactive program in the museum’s restored Abiel Smith School, the earliest known property built as a public school for black students. Today, visiting students imagine what it was like to attend the school during its founding era (1835–1855) thanks to a living historian portraying Susan Paul, an abolitionist and teacher at the school during that time. Students can learn about Paul’s life and how she shaped the lives of her pupils during her time, and reflect on how Paul’s experiences might compare to their own lives.

The story of Judah, an enslaved woman who lived at the Middletown, Virginia, plantation Belle Grove in the 19th century, has proven to be a powerful interpretive tool for sharing the experiences of enslaved women there. Belle Grove, a National Trust Historic Site, and National Park Service staff from Cedar Creek & Belle Grove National Historical Park jointly developed a program called “Kneading in Silence: A Glimpse into the Life of the Enslaved Cook Judah,” in which an interpreter presents information about Judah’s life and then facilitates a conversation with visitors. While records of Belle Grove’s enslaved community are scarce, documents show that Judah was a cook and had many children while at Belle Grove. By tracing the births and deaths that defined the course of her life (both of her children and members of the family that owned them), a window into Judah’s perspective opens. The plantation kitchen where Judah worked and possibly slept serves as the setting for these conversations about her life; the power of telling this challenging history in its original setting can be transformative. 

Lesson learned: Creative, visitor-focused interpretation can foster powerful connections to women’s history and historical figures even when evidence or material culture is scarce. 

Connecting to Today

The home of women’s suffrage leader Alice Paul, Paulsdale in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, now houses the Alice Paul Institute. As part of the institute’s mission, the site offers many educational and leadership programs for young women and girls. By leveraging the legacy of Alice Paul, the Alice Paul Institute has ensured that Paulsdale remains a vibrant and sustainable site today and provides valuable resources to future generations of women. 

Another way for historic sites to engage with young women and girls is through targeted programming with local schools and organizations such as the Girl Scouts. Some historic sites, like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, offer Scout Days with special programming enabling girls to connect with site history and try out new skills. Historic sites are a perfect setting for teaching a variety of skills and activities, such as gardening, cooking, sports, music, and dance. A few sites offer a special patch or badge for scouts who complete the Scout Day programming.

Visitors on the "Hired Help" tour at Brucemore in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. | Credit: Brucemore

One of the most common and important ways women’s history is made present in historic sites is by telling the story of women as preservationists. It is often said that the modern American historic preservation movement began with the campaign to save George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, led by Ann Pamela Cunningham and what became the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Countless women across the United States, inspired by patriotism and civic duty even before they won the right to vote, waged similar campaigns to save places they believed were significant in their hometowns. In the 20th century, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and New York City crusader Jane Jacobs became icons of the preservation movement. We have women to thank for their leadership in preserving many of the historic sites we steward today. While our current values may not exactly align with the those of our forebears, these women should be celebrated for their leadership and vision in making the preservation movement what it is today. 

Lesson learned: Connections to the present and future are just as vital as connections to the past. Leverage women’s history to invest in the next generation. 

Kelly Schindler is the associate manager for historic sites operations and administration at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She is currently working on a master’s of historic preservation at the University of Maryland.


Get Connected

Discuss this blog post and more on Forum’s new online community. Sign up now.