Interpreting Women’s History at Historic Sites: An Introduction

By Priya Chhaya posted 09-13-2017 12:48


This is not about women’s history. It is about our history.

Telling a broader American story is a priority at historic sites. Moreover, recent thinking holds that interpretation should be intersectional—that is, not tell the stories of various communities in isolation, but rather tell stories together because they are intertwined. The women’s history of any given historic site is not separate from any of its other narratives—neither from the traditional or dominant stories nor from more recent interpretations that focus on historically underrepresented narratives. Only by exploring all of these narratives together, in relation to one another, can we hope to get a complete, authentic understanding of a site’s history.

Over the next few weeks, Preservation Leadership Forum, in collaboration with the National Collaborative of Women's History Sites (NCWHS), will feature places that have re-envisioned, re-invigorated, and redesigned how we tell the stories of women’s history in the United States. This series will emphasize the fact that there is not one way to introduce formerly underrepresented narratives to balance dominant storylines. It will combat challenges to telling the full story of the American past, like the lack of archives or stories that are outside what has been considered a site’s period of significance. It will reveal the importance of intersectionality, emphasizing the fact that the stories at historic sites are interconnected and layered. Finally, it will highlight the great work being done around the country, at sites ranging from small house museums to large sites. This series is not just about women’s history, but rather about how we integrate and bring into the light the wealth of stories that have heretofore been obscured, creating an understanding of the past that is complex and truthful. We hope that readers will be inspired to implement these ideas at the historic sites that they love and steward. And 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.

Over the coming weeks, four case studies will illustrate different ways to tell these stories, and two pieces will focus on interpreting women’s history outside a site’s period of significance. The conclusion will discuss women’s history at National Trust Historic Sites and sum up the series.

Readers are encouraged to discuss the series on Forum Connect and participate in a Forum Webinar on the subject at the end of October. And PastForward 2017, November 14–17 in Chicago, will feature a Preservation Leadership Training on radical women’s history and, for the first time, a session focused on women’s history as part of diversity and inclusion programming. Conference attendees will also have the opportunity register for a Field Study that will explore Chicago’s women’s history sites.

The series now kicks off with an interview with members of NCWHS about their work telling “women’s history at sites.”

What was the impetus for creating NCWHS, and what is the organization’s primary goal?

Marie Rust, a regional director for the National Park Service (NPS), wanted parks to be more attentive to women’s history and, in 2000, encouraged us to form a group to that end. It’s been a labor of love ever since, driven by a strong sense that women’s history needs to be better interpreted at existing parks and sites and that other sites related to women’s history need to be preserved.

Image from the U2 The Joshua Tree Concernt in East Rutherford, NJ in June 2017. The slide preceeded a series of images of strong women from the past and present. | Credit: Priya Chhaya

Our primary goal is to encourage more and better interpretation of women’s history at historic places nationwide. To that end, we provide tools for sites; organize collaborative forums to research, interpret and preserve places of women’s history; and share insights through formal conference sessions, conference calls, and our website.

What are some projects that NCWHS has facilitated to draw attention to women’s history? And what projects are in the works?

NCWHS has released two books—Revealing Women’s History: Best Practices in Interpretation at Historic Sites and Women’s History: Sites and Resources—as well as a women’s history bibliography. We have made many conference presentations and set up several tours. In 2012 we teamed up with the NPS to hold a workshop called “Telling the Whole Story.” It brought together scholars, NPS employees, NCWHS experts, and others to analyze and strengthen women’s history preservation and presentation. More recently, we held a session at the 2017 Berkshire Conference of Women Historians about “Powerful Teaching Partnerships,” convening NPS and National Historic Landmark (NHL) staff, an archivist, and a classroom teacher to discuss innovative strategies for promoting women’s history and girls’ leadership. NCWHS, working with the NPS, also organized a special tour of the Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, home of Theodore Roosevelt and his family. During the tour, Iowa State University professor Stacy Cordery, author of Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker, spoke about the Roosevelt women, who were also the subject of an informative exhibit at the site’s visitor center.

We are currently planning to revise our four-webinar series, “Finding, Researching, & Integrating Women’s History into Your Site,” and make it available nationally. We are working with other groups and individuals not only to celebrate the 2020 centennial of women’s suffrage but also to critically examine the campaign for suffrage—its achievements, failures, and opposition as well as its complex relationship to women of color.

What exactly do you mean when you say “women’s history sites”?

We really should say “women’s history at sites,” to be clear that our scope is not limited to historic sites focused on women. Although those are very important, women’s history is everywhere, at all historic sites—whether women’s participation there is obvious or not. Historic sites are full of tangible resources related to women’s history: not only diaries and letters but also landscapes, buildings, and objects that we can use to understand our foremothers’ lives. Historic sites allow us to examine domestic spaces, family life, and labor alongside the public activities of well-known individuals and groups. They are the prime places to discover and interpret the histories of and relationships among diverse groups of women and girls—including family members and servants or enslaved people, teachers and pupils, immigrants and settlement house workers, settlers and American Indians, activists and those whose lives they sought to transform. Without fully including the history of all women, we cannot have a complete and accurate understanding U.S. history.

How has the field changed since the creation of NCWHS in 2001? What progress can you see? And what challenges have you faced?

Some sites have shifted from recognizing only prominent men to highlighting many different men and women. This interpretive move sometimes brings with it name changes—what was once the James Otis House in Haverhill, Massachusetts, is now the Otis House because the interpretation now includes his family as well as the site’s time as a boarding house. Other sites, like the Tenement Museum in New York City, allow us to examine relationships among women and men, parents and children from many different ethnic groups.

Greater attention is also being paid to recognizing the histories of different races at sites that once focused solely on white men. For example, attention to race and gender have transformed the interpretive program at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. NCWHS has worked to help ensure that women of color receive the attention they deserve. Recently, we supported the Pauli Murray home in Durham, North Carolina, in becoming an NHL. We are currently doing the same for the Annie Dodge Wauneka site on the Navajo Nation reservation.

Pauli Murray's childhood home in Durham, North Carolina, now the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice | Credit: Barbara Lau

NCWHS has also worked with the NPS to develop theme studies to highlight diversity at historic sites. Like previous theme studies focusing on marginalized racial or ethnic communities, the recently released LGBTQ theme study has expanded knowledge about women whose histories are harder to find precisely because of their communities’ marginalization.

Despite these advances, we need to continue to focus on the lives of women and girls and help people recognize that women’s history is foundational to American history. We highlight women’s history because we believe that we must tell everyone’s history—and we still have so much to learn about the lives and experiences of the diverse women and girls who helped shape our nation. We need to continue our work to ensure that a more comprehensive story is told at sites and to encourage visitors to play an active role in recounting that history.

If you are participating in the PastForward Challenge (Gamification) for points and prizes, please enter the following passcode for the "Read: Women's History" challenge: WHPLF.

Priya Chhaya is a public historian and the manager for online content and products at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Follow her on Twitter @priyastoric.

#women #Diversity #Interpretation #Inclusion #housemuseums

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