Don’t Rush to Oppose a Women’s History Museum


Just before Mother’s Day, the United States House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted in favor of a feasibility study on the prospect of a privately-funded women’s history museum on or near the National Mall. To be sure, support for the bill was both wide and bipartisan. Yet a few vocal critics have made the news with comments that make me want to sit the naysayers down and explain to them what a museum is.

Talk show host and, apparently, self-described satirist Rush Limbaugh declared:

We already have, ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know how many museums for women all over the country. They are called malls.

Limbaugh’s logic appears to rest on the idea that women like to go to malls and, thus, malls are women’s history museums. By that line of reasoning, any place where people congregate is a museum. Never mind such technicalities as the conservation of objects, development of exhibits, or education of visitors.

But maybe I am misrepresenting Limbaugh’s position. Maybe “a place where people congregate” is a broader definition of museum than Limbaugh means. Perhaps Limbaugh is saying that malls are women’s museums because malls are places where women like to buy goods and services, and therefore a museum for a specific audience is a place where that audience likes to make purchases.

Limbaugh then said that instead of using the word mall, “Hey, I could have said brothel, but I didn’t.”

So if malls are women’s museums because they are places where women like to make purchases, then… isn’t the typical brothel a men’s museum in Limbaugh’s world? In any case, Limbaugh’s argument that we don’t need a museum because we have [insert any other kind of building here] in the world reduces the word museum to meaninglessness.

US Capitol

The United States Capitol, where the House of Representatives voted on a feasibility study for a National Women’s History Museum and where only a small percentage of statues honor female historical figures

Meanwhile, newsreaders also get to hear from a House Member who voted against the bill. Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) is concerned, as the Washington Post article put it, “that there are no assurances it won’t become [in Bachmann’s words] ‘an ideological shrine to abortion.’ ”

She is correct! In fact, I would guess that the vast majority of museums are built without specific assurances that they won’t become ideological shrines to abortion. I hope anyone who wants to build a museum about women’s history or medicine, or for that matter, any topic at all, will include specific language in its founding documents that the museum will not become an ideological shrine to abortion. Otherwise, what assurance do we have? Parents certainly don’t want to take their toddlers to the local train museum or aquarium and be unpleasantly surprised by an altar to the abortion gods when they walk in the door.

In reality, museums are neither so broadly defined as to include any old place where people gather and shop, nor so narrowly defined that every topic they touch upon is “ideologically enshrined.” If a women’s history museum is done right, it will present the good and the bad, and the diversity of opinion and experience that American women have held.

One argument that I have heard against a women’s museum or any museum devoted to a specific heritage is that instead of building separate museums, everyone’s history should be woven into the National Museum of American History. And I have seen varying degrees of commitment to this approach, from genuine belief and efforts to have a greater variety of perspectives showcased in NMAH and other general history museums, to being dismissive of any narrative other than the one in the textbooks and the monuments.

I do not see mutual exclusivity in working to make an existing museum more inclusive and varied in the stories it tells, and building a new museum that, right away and with the intentionality of its very mission, will offer visitors a chance to see what they might be missing in the older museums. Additionally, specialty museums abound because people have interests into which they want to delve deeper. Hence, there are transportation museums; there are also train museums and boat museums and plane museums. There are large and small museums, old and new museums, art and history and science museums, and there is room for a great variety. (Note, in case you missed it: the proposed women’s history museum will not be funded by taxpayer money, so the “That’s all good and well but why should I have to help pay for it?” argument does not work here.)

P.S. In somewhat of a twist, while Michele Bachmann is worried that the National Women’s History Museum will celebrate abortion, the museum’s website is busy celebrating Michele Bachmann and motherhood (among its many content areas). Bachmann was included in the online exhibit Profiles in Motherhood in 2011, which she considered an honor at the time.

Perhaps in the not-too-distant-future, Americans can celebrate Mother’s Day by bringing their moms to the National Women’s History Museum. Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers and mother figures out there!

About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
This entry was posted in Articles and Books, Capitol Visitor Center, Museums and Holidays and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Don’t Rush to Oppose a Women’s History Museum

  1. Misterkappa says:

    Nice post, i love it! :)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s