Several years ago, when I was working on a project to compile 19th century Utah schoolteachers’ narratives in a book, I found this quote from noted scholar Carolyn Heilbrun: "Women in the past have a dreadful tendency to disappear in a cloud of anonymity and silence."
Heilbrun felt that it was important to recover their voices and stories. I was also inspired by other scholars already at work recovering the voices and stories of Utah women: Claudia Bushman, Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Lavina Fielding Anderson, Carol Cornwall Madsen. I learned about important women in Utah’s history: Emmeline B. Wells, editor of The Woman’s Exponent and friend to Susan B. Anthony; Martha Hughes Cannon, physician and senator, the first woman in the U.S. to be elected to a state senate; Amy Brown Lyman, student of Jane Addams at Hull House, who drew on the experience to develop social programs for Utah women.
Sadly, women are largely missing from American history. A review of 18 U.S. history textbooks showed that only 10 percent of the individuals discussed are women; of America’s 2,400 national historic landmarks, fewer than 8 percent are devoted to the accomplishments of women; and only 13 of the 217 statues in the U.S. Capitol represent women. As Women’s Equality Day — the anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the vote — approaches, there is an opportunity to change that. A National Women’s History Museum in Washington, D.C., is closer than ever to passage, fueled by bipartisan legislation.
On May 7, the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly (383-33) for H.R. 863, which would form a bipartisan commission to produce a plan for the museum’s governance, organizational structure, operations, and location. The bill now sits in the Senate, where it also has strong bipartisan support.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is one of only two senators who have expressed concerns about the bill, specifically in regards to funding. But, the language written into both the House and the Senate bills clearly states that no federal monies will be used. In fact, the nonprofit, NWHM, Inc. has the money in place to fund fully the commission. What can be Sen. Lee’s concern, as funding is clearly not an issue, and the commission will not cost taxpayers a dime? This is a golden opportunity to support women and their history. Showcasing the many significant contributions of women is long overdue.
The National Women’s History Museum will tell the stories of individuals like Sybil Luddington, the 16-year-old woman who rode farther than Paul Revere to warn that the British were coming; Hedy Lamarr, the actress who also invented a radio-frequency hopping device that prevented spies from intercepting U.S. military messages and enables the use of cellphones and wireless communications today; emancipated slave Elizabeth Bowser, who served as a spy during the Civil War; and Jackie Mitchell, who struck out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in the same inning. It will also tell the story of Utah women who were enfranchised with the vote nearly 50 years before national suffrage.
This is not a Democrat or Republican issue. The reason to erect this museum in Washington, D.C., is to provide a more complete and inclusive narrative for our nation. It will inspire young girls and women to recognize the possibilities in their own lives. A National Women’s History Museum recovers voices and stories and demonstrates the central, indispensable role that women have played through the entirety of our national saga.
Joyce Kinkead is the author or editor of a number of books, including "A Schoolmarm All My Life: Personal Narratives from Frontier Utah," and member of the faculty of Utah State University.
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