Women’s Lives: Are We Telling the Real Story?

women dancing

Are we not of interest to each other….It’s much deeper than that. Are human beings who are in community, do we call to one another? Do we heed each other? Do we want to know each other? There are a lot of ways that people that are aggrieved can be addressed, we all have our grievances, when grievance is really heard on the intimate level I think that does a great deal of the work of moving people forward….. We speak out of what we know and what we have lived and hopefully out of that comes something we might call the universal.

Elizabeth Alexander, Poet and Professor, speaking on “On Being” with Krista Tippett, July 26, 2015.                                         You can find the full interview here.

Hello, everyone.

It’s mid-month and time to talk about gender and museums again. As you’re aware Anne and I are embroiled in another book project, Women+Museums: Lessons from the Field. This is a book that addresses some of the inequities in our field in addition to what’s wonderful about it.  If you are expecting a cringe-worthy rant, you’ll be disappointed, but we do want to raise some questions about gender in the museum workplace and about gender on the interpretive/exhibition side of things.

A few weeks ago we sent some questions about gender in programming and exhibitions to a group of female colleagues. After exchanging emails we decided that questions this weighty deserve answers that don’t have to be typed so we’re waiting for our schedules to calm down to talk. In the meantime, I thought I’d pose the same questions to all of you in the hopes you will have thoughts you’d like to share. And if nothing else, perhaps it will start a dialog in various museum workplaces. Here is the first one: When your institution discusses marginalized groups, are women mentioned? And by marginalized, we mean groups excluded from the mainstream by race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion or class. For example, if your museum is doing a thematic exhibit–let’s say art or objects based around memory–when your staff checks the boxes about who’s represented, does anyone mention women? If not, why not?

Here is the second question–and this is particularly for folks who work in history museums: Do you think women’s lives are interpreted in museums and house museums in a fair and empathetic way without presentist judgement? And by that we mean, do we talk about how women lived rather than interpreting their lives through the objects they used in a slightly pitying way because they aren’t evolved enough to have, say, heating systems that can be adjusted from the office or the car?

We didn’t just ask our women friends these questions. We also posed them to Frank Vagnone, Executive Director of New York’s Historic House Trust, and the founder and principal writer for the blog “Anarchist’s Guide to Historic Houses.” (Just FYI, if you’re not a fan, you should be.) Actually, we asked Frank twice because we’re so deep in this project, we seem to be losing our grip. In any case, here is some of what he had to say: “In my opinion, historic house museums tend to not think of the female voice as a primary player (unless it is Hull house etc.). They are just now getting to see that the female can actually expand the narrative in very interesting places. I think historic house museums understand women as marginalized when its women’s history month – after that, they get pushed in the background (not always – but a lot of the time.) The odd thing is that most of the people employed at house museums are women – In my experience, I, as a middle-aged white man (gay), have been the one to push women’s narratives at house museums that I have been involved with – pushing them beyond cook books and pretty dresses…”

And about the second question Frank wrote: “I do not know how we can do anything without some bias of our times shading our actions and interpretations. The best we can do is try to flesh out the broader aspects of the narrative in ways that may not fully ‘fit’ today’s view.”

So, not to put too fine a point on it, but what’s going on here? Why are women silent about women? Are those of you who work in 19th-century historic houses worried that you’re telling a different, more jovial, story than the time period that saw the publication of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” or the lives of women like Emily Dickinson and Matilda Joslyn Gage?  Is yours a story that glorifies ironing with a flat iron, walking the floor with a sick child in a world without antibiotics, or the menial act of getting dirt out of a carpet without a vacuum? How do you deal with issues of color versus issues of gender? What are the differences in the lives of an urban black woman versus an new female immigrant?  Do you tell the story common to both or only the story of ethnicity? Does your audience know that women didn’t receive the vote until 1920 or that the first birth control clinic didn’t open until 1916? If you’re interpreting an historic house, is birth control or its lack part of the narrative or do you simply announce how many children a family had? I realize I am sounding rantish, but it is a teensy shocking that a gay man, aka Frank Vagnone, has to push the women’s narrative at historic house museums.

So please, if you disagree, let us know. We’re waiting to hear from you.

Joan Baldwin

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3 Comments on “Women’s Lives: Are We Telling the Real Story?”

  1. Lisa Junkin Lopez says:

    Credit must be given to the many 2nd wave feminists who went to work in historic houses and over venues where they could do women’s and social history in the 70s and 80s. It is true that most historic houses do not focus on women’s lives and issues. But many that do are strong examples, Hull-House, Matilda Joslyn Gage and Emily Dickinson houses included. The National Collaborative of Women’s History Sites is a good place to learn more.

  2. teachjean says:

    Good article with an important message.

    The Alice Paul Institute in Mt Laurel, NJ has done a good job of leaving Alice Paul’s house and property with enough of the 19th century look to see how the Paul’s lived there and at the same time using the house and property as a women and girl’s Leadership Training Center. Barbara Irvine, the president of the Institute for the first 15 yrs,1985-2000, was one of the founders of the National Collaborative of Women’s History Sites. Paulsdale is also one of only a few women’s sites that has been designated a National Historic Site.


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