"Doing Women’s History in Public": A Q&A with Heather Huyck

By Priya Chhaya posted 08-13-2020 11:16


All year long organizations across the country have been marking the centennial of the 19th Amendment. Along with that commemoration comes increased time and attention to the telling of women’s stories at historic places.

This past spring Rowman & Littlefield (as part of their series with the American Association of State and Local History) published "Doing Women’s History in Public: A Handbook for Interpretation at Museums and Historic Sites." Written by Heather Huyck, this handbook, like others in the series, takes a deep dive into re-casting the methods of historical practice. On the surface each of the sections: Significance, Knowledge Base, Tangible Resources, and Interpretation look like a basic primer for how we have always interpreted history, but that is not the case. In addition to general information, each section provides some practical exercises push readers to look at traditional tools in a new way. Each section teases out the ways in which we can find women’s history everywhere we look.


For historic preservationists, this book provides a look at how we can identify and interact with women’s stories in the built environment. To tell us more about the book and how it intersects with preservation practice, I interviewed Huyck:

Why was writing this book important to write now?

Because historic places are such crucial places where people of all ages learn American history, we have a responsibility to fully recognize everyone’s lives. Women are no small sliver of humanity or, as Gerda Lerner said long ago, "the majority finds its past". Only in the past few decades have we gained the amazing women’s history scholarship that makes possible such recognition.

When the history of all women gets short shrift at historic places, we distort our understanding of the American past. We don’t appreciate the cultural barriers suffragists had to overcome or the sheer endurance of enslaved women. We don’t understand why groups of people feel as they did or what it’s taken to get to the present. I’ve been told in the firm tones that “there are no women here,” when there certainly were women there or have gone to house museums that celebrated the men and ignored the women.

For example, Arlington House once focused on Robert E. Lee’s decision to resign from the Union Army but ignored the dozens of enslaved women whose work built that plantation. Unless we tell the whole story, we aren’t doing responsible history. I wrote this book to provide rationales why women’s (and girls’!) history is essential and to provide the best techniques to do that when working with the public in historic places. I included many different sources and examples to show the too little appreciated diversity of women’s lives.

We must interpret the whole story and put women at the center. Doing so complicates—and enriches—our story.

Each chapter is teaching some basic skills of historical practice but expanding on how embed women's history as part of that work. What is one take away you want readers to carry forward?

That women were everywhere, that we can find them, and MUST interpret them. We need to appreciate more the incredible variety of our foremothers’ accomplishments. We must also share women’s history with “males of our species” because until everyone appreciates women’s history, we’ll keep underestimating women and all we have been and can be.

In the section of the book on preservation practice, Huyck describes how preservation projects open avenues for new questions about a sites significance, and interpretation. This is also possible during adaptive use projects, as seen in this exampl where a church is being turned into a library, the use of a structure changes. |Credit: Heather Huyck

The book starts with a conversation about the importance of "determining significance," and how doing women's history in public involves a “re-examination of traditional ideas of significance - beyond the [reflections] of powerholders and national debates.” What do you think is the first step to re-evaluating the significance of an historic site?

I’ve been to too many historic places that deny women’s presence, much less their agency. Good planning processes begin with “why” something is important to guide research, preservation and interpretation. That understanding of significance often grows during the planning process as we appreciate more all that women have done. Without high level support, it’s possible-- but difficult-- and often involves a lot of wasted effort. We’ve all succeeded without such support but it’s much more effective to begin with it. I wanted to give historic place personnel the arguments for the importance of doing women’s history and assure them that it’s both possible and exciting to do it. It’s an iterative process of ever spiraling out understanding. You never know what you’ll discover next.

Tell me a little bit about the process of developing the resources and format of each of the chapters? How do you hope readers will use the exercises at the end of each part?

The book is designed to be flexible in its usage as every site/museum/historic house/park is different even as they share so much. By using the “Tools” to create a site-specific toolbox, each historic place can develop its own toolbox that can then be used for research, preservation, and interpretation. The goal is to balance historic interpretation of women to be site-specific within their historic context. That way individuals are understood in the context of their times. Once developed, this toolbox supports historic place management in all those ways and only needs updating. By undertaking this process, historic places will build their teams. Given the separations enforced by the pandemic, having this positive group project can provide staff, boards, volunteers, and friends specific yet shared tasks.

Pauli Murray Famiily Home , a National Historic Landmark in Durham, North Carolina. Pauli Murray was an African American member of the LGBTQ community, a Civil Rights and Women’s Rights activist, the author of work that Thurgood Marshall called the “Bible for Civil Rights law,” a lawyer, the first female African American Episcopal priest, and an Episcopal saint. This site is also a National Trust National Treasure. | Credit: Barbara Lau

How you suggest preservationists use this book as part of their work?

Depends on their situation. This book combines the National Register of Historic Places approach with best practices in preservation and interpretation. I suggest that everyone read the entire book but focus on the most pertinent chapters. For preservationists, the chapters on tangible resources and preservation itself will probably be most helpful. So much of architectural history focuses on a few great male architects rather than considering how architecture affects women and how women interact with it. Structures—bridges, canals, and irrigation ditches—offer underappreciated interpretive opportunities because they so impacted women’s lives. As preservationists our traditional focus has been on tangible resources; we should also include the “intangible heritage” associated with those resources whether knowledge of spinning, suffrage songs, or computer jargon because they so complement and enrich understanding of landscapes, architecture and objects. Above all, enjoy the search and the sharing.

In the section on preservation you wrote, “Preservation efforts often begin with groups and individuals passionate about protecting locally significant buildings and famous architects’ designs. They approach preservation from the perspective of what still physically remains, especially resources deemed architecturally significant" Can you expand on how a different approach is necessary for protecting women's history? What are some things that need re-evaluation in terms of preservation practice?

Years ago, I had a major argument with another public historian about Zora Neale Hurston’s house. He argued it should not be on the National Register of Historic Places because it was made of cinder blocks and was not architecturally significant. I argued that the simplicity of her house tells us a lot about her life situation—that was what she could afford. Traditional preservation efforts have focused on elite mansions although more recently industrial, vernacular and “intangible” resources such as language, traditions, skills have been increasingly recognized as valuable. Traditional windshield surveys to identify architecturally significant buildings are often quite wonderful and are crucial for protecting a sense of place.

We need to find everyone once present in a place, to look at census records and similar evidence, to look at Sanford maps to understand spatial relationships among different people and activities. We must study all kinds of sources to find as many people as we can in a given place over time. Many women could only rent or lived as sharecroppers, making finding their homes more difficult. Other women left ephemeral traces from lives on Indian reservations or in tenements.

It’s a huge and important task to find as many women as we can and to recognize that women (and men) shaped our identity-- as tangible resources show. The search itself is often fascinating—and also fun. There’s a sense of solving a mystery and of accomplishment. Their evidence can be a soddy, a tipi, a canal boat, or an apartment above a store—we need to recognize the full panoply of their presence in the built environment. Historians and historic preservationists will be stronger if we recognize and meld these two different approaches-- of what remains and of everyone once there. Together they inform our identity.

Heather Huyck has worked in women’s history and historic sites since 1971 with a MA in Cultural Anthropology and a PhD in American History from the University of Minnesota. She has been a National Park Service historian and ranger, and a professional staff member, House of Representatives Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands. She is the past president of the National Collaborative of Women's History Sites. 

Priya Chhaya is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.