May
23rd 2014
Right wing minority wields disproportionate influence over the NWHM, and why the NWHM lets them

Posted under: American history, Gender, the body, unhappy endings, wankers, weirdness, women's history

Via a retweet by Modupe Labode on Twitter, I found this fascinating essay by Manon Parry, who tells of her experience as a recent Ph.D. who had an informational interview with a staff member from the National Women’s History Museum in 2010:

While CEO Joan Wages may not think historians are integral to the project, the resulting online exhibitions, labelled “amateur, superficial, and inaccurate” by Michel, are certainly disappointing, mixing trite sentimentality (“Profiles in Motherhood”) with shallow celebration (“Daring Dames,” and “Young and Brave: Girls Changing History”). As the Huffington Post article noted, “there appears to be little rhyme or reason to who or what is featured on the museum’s website.” Yet despite the upbeat tone and narrow emphasis on great women and their accomplishments, the exhibitions are still too provocative for the right-wing opponents of women’s history. Since 2008, legislation to grant NWHM permission to build near the National Mall has stalled six times, blocked in Congress by Republican opponents acting on behalf of anti-abortion interests. Michele Bachmann’s charge that the museum will create an “ideological shrine to abortion” is just the latest in this repeated strategy. In 2010, Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Jim DeMint (R-SC), placed a hold on a bill two days after Concerned Women for America requested one, claiming that the museum would “focus on abortion rights.” In response, Wages reassured opponents that reproductive health will never be tackled in the museum. “We cannot afford, literally, to focus on issues that are divisive.”

I know first-hand that the content of the museum’s website owes more to the fears of a political backlash than to the results of decades of groundbreaking historical research.

I completed my PhD in 2010 with Sonya Michel as my dissertation advisor. Interested in employment opportunities at the NWHM, I arranged an informal phone conversation with a staff member at Ralph Appelbaum Associates, then involved as designers for the project. Although this contact acknowledged my relevant training and expertise, she bluntly stated that my research, on family planning media over the twentieth century, made me a liability, given the political sensitivity of the topic. Birth control may be legal in America today, but it is clearly not legitimate. I mention this personal anecdote as full disclosure, not to complain about what happened to me, but to highlight how bad things have become. This is the state of the public history of women in twenty-first century America. Simplified, politically sensitive, and censored.

Access to contraception has been recognized as a Constitutional right in the United States for nearly fifty years.  First trimester abortions have been a Constitutional right for more than forty years.  The majority of American men and women make use of contraceptive technologies for at least a portion of their lives, and nearly a third of all American women have induced abortions.  Where is this silent majority when it comes to commemorating this tremendous medical and technological achievement that has improved the lives of so many American families?  Why shouldn’t we commemorate the end of an era in which the senseless butchery of women was seen as a reasonable consequence for extramarital heterosexuality?

I think a vocal, tiny right-wing minority has the edge here politically for two reasons.  First, their position exploits America’s discomfort with open conversations about sexuality and sexual knowledge.  Although pretty much every American has sex with someone else at some point in their lives, and although the vast, vast, vast majority of us take advantage of the wonders of contraception while we’re doing it, we’re still as a culture profoundly uncomfortable talking about it.

As my research goes ever more into the history of sexuality, you wouldn’t believe the childish responses I get when “even” so-called “liberal” or “progressive” academics ask about my research.  Now that I’m researching a book about breasts, it’s really obvious.  (Clearly, I need to come up with a rejoinder to snap people–by which I mean straight men–out of their junior high-school reveries.)

So, American immaturity and prurience is the first reason a tiny minority has the edge.  The second reason is that this minority also has the virtue of being correct on an issue about which the NWHM wants to prevaricate or even dissemble.  Michele Bachmann, Tom Coburn, Jim DeMint, and the Concerned Women of America understand what the National Women’s History Museum wants to obscure, which is that 1) feminism is in fact a revolutionary movement that 2) has emancipated millions of women.  They don’t think that’s worthy of commemoration.  You’d think that a National Women’s History Museum would disagree with this small minority of Americans on this point, but apparently not.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History celebrates the American Revolution, and still greets visitors with the tattered U.S. flag from the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor in 1814.  The African American History and Culture Museum when it opens next year will undoubtedly celebrate the many revolutions in African American history, from the end of the transatlantic slave trade in 1808 to emancipation and the Civil Rights movement.  But clearly, this country hasn’t made peace with women’s emancipation.  Not at all.

While CEO Joan Wages may not think historians are integral to the project, the resulting online exhibitions, labelled “amateur, superficial, and inaccurate” by Michel, are certainly disappointing, mixing trite sentimentality (“Profiles in Motherhood”) with shallow celebration (“Daring Dames,” and “Young and Brave: Girls Changing History”). As the Huffington Post article noted, “there appears to be little rhyme or reason to who or what is featured on the museum’s website.” Yet despite the upbeat tone and narrow emphasis on great women and their accomplishments, the exhibitions are still too provocative for the right-wing opponents of women’s history. Since 2008, legislation to grant NWHM permission to build near the National Mall has stalled six times, blocked in Congress by Republican opponents acting on behalf of anti-abortion interests. Michele Bachmann’s charge that the museum will create an “ideological shrine to abortion” is just the latest in this repeated strategy. In 2010, Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Jim DeMint (R-SC), placed a hold on a bill two days after Concerned Women for America requested one, claiming that the museum would “focus on abortion rights.” In response, Wages reassured opponents that reproductive health will never be tackled in the museum. “We cannot afford, literally, to focus on issues that are divisive.”

I know first-hand that the content of the museum’s website owes more to the fears of a political backlash than to the results of decades of groundbreaking historical research.

I completed my PhD in 2010 with Sonya Michel as my dissertation advisor. Interested in employment opportunities at the NWHM, I arranged an informal phone conversation with a staff member at Ralph Appelbaum Associates, then involved as designers for the project. Although this contact acknowledged my relevant training and expertise, she bluntly stated that my research, on family planning media over the twentieth century, made me a liability, given the political sensitivity of the topic. Birth control may be legal in America today, but it is clearly not legitimate. I mention this personal anecdote as full disclosure, not to complain about what happened to me, but to highlight how bad things have become. This is the state of the public history of women in twenty-first century America. Simplified, politically sensitive, and censored.

- See more at: http://publichistorycommons.org/national-womens-history-museum-wars/#sthash.B4SKogEO.dpuf

While CEO Joan Wages may not think historians are integral to the project, the resulting online exhibitions, labelled “amateur, superficial, and inaccurate” by Michel, are certainly disappointing, mixing trite sentimentality (“Profiles in Motherhood”) with shallow celebration (“Daring Dames,” and “Young and Brave: Girls Changing History”). As the Huffington Post article noted, “there appears to be little rhyme or reason to who or what is featured on the museum’s website.” Yet despite the upbeat tone and narrow emphasis on great women and their accomplishments, the exhibitions are still too provocative for the right-wing opponents of women’s history. Since 2008, legislation to grant NWHM permission to build near the National Mall has stalled six times, blocked in Congress by Republican opponents acting on behalf of anti-abortion interests. Michele Bachmann’s charge that the museum will create an “ideological shrine to abortion” is just the latest in this repeated strategy. In 2010, Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Jim DeMint (R-SC), placed a hold on a bill two days after Concerned Women for America requested one, claiming that the museum would “focus on abortion rights.” In response, Wages reassured opponents that reproductive health will never be tackled in the museum. “We cannot afford, literally, to focus on issues that are divisive.”

I know first-hand that the content of the museum’s website owes more to the fears of a political backlash than to the results of decades of groundbreaking historical research.

I completed my PhD in 2010 with Sonya Michel as my dissertation advisor. Interested in employment opportunities at the NWHM, I arranged an informal phone conversation with a staff member at Ralph Appelbaum Associates, then involved as designers for the project. Although this contact acknowledged my relevant training and expertise, she bluntly stated that my research, on family planning media over the twentieth century, made me a liability, given the political sensitivity of the topic. Birth control may be legal in America today, but it is clearly not legitimate. I mention this personal anecdote as full disclosure, not to complain about what happened to me, but to highlight how bad things have become. This is the state of the public history of women in twenty-first century America. Simplified, politically sensitive, and censored.

- See more at: http://publichistorycommons.org/national-womens-history-museum-wars/#sthash.B4SKogEO.dpuf

12 Comments »

12 Responses to “Right wing minority wields disproportionate influence over the NWHM, and why the NWHM lets them”

  1. Susan on 23 May 2014 at 10:34 pm #

    This is just depressing. I’m always astonished by this nonsense, which I ought to expect. But just in case you didn’t know that at least some portion of the antiabortion movement was also aster access to contraception, now we know.

  2. Sisyphus on 24 May 2014 at 9:40 am #

    I’m sure you heard about this:

    http://www.noozhawk.com/article/multiple_shootings_reported_in_isla_vista_20140523

    Sigh. Another one that perfectly fits your files. I can’t bear to watch the youtube video he left, though.

  3. Janice on 25 May 2014 at 7:07 pm #

    I wonder what topic of American women’s history would pass the NWHM’s litmus test of acceptable academic inquiry when considering bringing a professional historian onboard? My suspicion is anything other than a biography of a stoutly social conservative individual or prospography of the same type would be poison. Bah!

  4. Tom Van Dyke on 25 May 2014 at 7:33 pm #

    “So, American immaturity and prurience is the first reason a tiny minority has the edge. The second reason is that this minority also has the virtue of being correct on an issue about which the NWHM wants to prevaricate or even dissemble. Michele Bachmann, Tom Coburn, Jim DeMint, and the Concerned Women of America understand what the National Women’s History Museum wants to obscure, which is that 1) feminism is in fact a revolutionary movement that 2) has emancipated millions of women. They don’t think that’s worthy of commemoration.”

    The above quite gives away the game in both its polemical tone and in its substance.

    “Feminism” as used here is anything but a politically neutral term. That the museum would become a temple for a certain worldview and ideology is a near-certainty, and its opponents should be credited at least for their prescience.

    Geez. They may be dumb but they’re not stupid.

  5. Tenured Radical on 26 May 2014 at 1:07 pm #

    Great piece, Historiann: I think you nailed it here. Another big topic of conversation at #Berks2014 was the failure of the recently dismissed board to be alert to how homogenous as they were/are as a group. They are all women I admire, but particularly after returning from such a dynamic, international conference as the Toronto Berks, it does occur to me that as some of us have entered the ranks of the powerful there is sometimes less critical self-reflection than there might be too.

  6. Western Dave on 27 May 2014 at 6:31 am #

    Re: Breasts. I am reminded of the late Hal Rothman’s oral history project on workers in Las Vegas which is under the auspices of UNLV. This was/is an incredibly ambitious, wonderful project. Hal wanted to create an oral history archive that reflected all the experiences of Vegas and not just the triumphalist narrative of city fathers. As part of that work, he and the team did extensive oral history collecting among legal sex workers in Las Vegas: women who worked in strip clubs, show dancers, and so on. Unfortunately Hal became widely known because ESPN dudebro Gregg Easterbrook came up with this:

    “TMQ decreed a Hal Rothman Award, which, for a few years, I gave to the man who invented the cleverest legitimate reason to gawk at naked babes, or the woman who invented the cleverest legitimate reason to gawk at shirtless hunks”

    Sigh.

  7. Historiann on 28 May 2014 at 10:51 am #

    TR: the NWHM board convened in 2011 featured a few women of color: the late Stephanie Camp, Vicki Ruiz, and Thavolia Glymph, for example, and there may be others on that list that I don’t know. But you are right in the main that women’s history in this respect resembles the wider historical profession in its overwhelming whiteness.

    I do not see any evidence that the NWHM sees that as a problem, however, or that left to their own devices, they would create exhibitions or tell stories that center on the experiences of women of color.

  8. Tenured Radical on 28 May 2014 at 9:02 pm #

    Good point of clarification about the committee Historiann: this fracas has caused me to wonder whether we actually needed a women’s history museum, or whether the effort should have been greater to do more with gender at the other museums.

  9. Stephanie on 30 May 2014 at 9:57 am #

    I wasn’t at the Berks so I’m not sure in what context Tenured Radical came to believe that the NWHM scholars were unaware of the group’s homogeneity. However, I was on at least two lo-o-o-ng phone calls with NWHM staff in the weeks before we were summarily dismissed, where the gist of the conversation was entirely centered on the need to diversify the membership of the consulting scholars. We were aware; we tried to correct it; we fussed about other things as well; we were fired.

  10. Historiann on 30 May 2014 at 10:14 am #

    Thanks for the insider intel, Stephanie.

  11. This Week’s New York History Web Highlights | The New York History Blog on 30 May 2014 at 12:53 pm #

    […] Historiann: Right Wing Minority Rules Women’s History Museum […]

  12. Jeannie Pfaelzer on 31 May 2014 at 5:55 am #

    As one of the scholars dismissed by the NWHM (and was at the Berks and the sessions on women’s history/public history) the last conference calls were (again) about diversifying the scholars’ councils and our refusal to participate further until the scholars’ councils were diversified. Our “dismissal” followed that last call.

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