It has received less attention than expanded unemployment insurance or the battle over economic controls, but the year-end legislation passed by Congress last week had a provision embedded in it that could transform the way the United States remembers its history.
Legislation included the Smithsonian Women’s History Act, the culmination of years of efforts to establish a museum of women’s history in Washington, DC. Backed by Democrats like Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York and Republicans like Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the law clears the creation of the museum on the National Mall, which is funded by a combination of federal and private funding.
“For too long women’s stories have been left out of telling our nation’s history, but with this vote we are starting to correct that,” Maloney said in a statement last week.
The omnibus legislation also included a provision to establish a national museum of American Latino that will focus on “Latino Contributions to the Life, Art, History and Culture of the United States.” Both will be in or around the National Mall, with an accurate location to be determined within two years, according to CNN.
The bills to build the museums were blocked earlier this month by Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee, who argued they were fissile. “At this moment in our diverse nation’s history, we need our federal government and the Smithsonian Institution itself to pull us closer together, not further apart,” he said.
But many say that the museums, on the contrary, are long overdue. “Having a museum that shows women’s experiences in US history shouldn’t be a controversial endeavor,” said Kali Nicole Gross, professor at Emory University and Rutgers University and co-author of A Black Women’s History of the United States said Vox. “The fact that it is shows that we still have a long way to go.”
Legislation is the culmination of years of process
The idea of a national women’s history museum came before Congress in 2003 when Collins and others tabled a bill to establish one, according to CNBC. It failed, but in 2014 a congressional commission recommended building a museum.
Then, in February 2020, the house passed the Smithsonian Women’s History Act to build the museum. But the passage of this bill and legislation to establish the Museum of the American Latino was blocked in the Senate by Lee, who, according to CNN, said the US does not need “separate but equal museums.”
The Smithsonian shouldn’t have an exclusive museum of Latino American history, or a museum of women’s history, or a museum of American men’s or Mormon history, or Asian-American history or Catholic history. American history is a comprehensive story that should unite us, ”he added.
But many disagreed, and both proposals were incorporated into collective legislation passed last week, which included $ 600 stimulus checks and other Covid-19 relief.
Lawmakers have welcomed the plans for both museums and expressed hope that they will tell the stories of Americans who have been left out of history classes and textbooks too often.
“With this vote, Latinos and Latinas in our country will finally have their stories, struggles and impact on our country confirmed by the United States Congress,” Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said in a statement following the passage of the law.
And Maloney said in a statement that it was “fitting” that the bill to establish the Museum of Women’s History was passed “on the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and the year we elected our first female vice president.” .
Much remains to be done
The museums will likely take years to build. The National Museum of African American History, the youngest member of the Smithsonian, was approved by Congress in 2003 and opened in 2016, according to CNN.
And in the planning process, the key will be an “expansive view” of women’s history, said Gross, including women of diverse abilities, trans and queer communities, and the experiences of women from all walks of life: “Women who were performers, women who were writers were women who were seamstresses, women who were farmers, women who were domestic servants, ”she explained. “I want it all.”
Such an expansive view could also extend to more experiential methods of teaching history, Gross said, including the history of street harassment in the United States. “From the first women to work and navigate public roads, there were all sorts of dangers,” she explained, especially for black women. “They wore hat pins; They have learned how to use their wallets and bags defensively to protect themselves. “
It will be interesting to see if the museum could find a way to recreate “that embodied experience” or use it to teach about the misogyny that is a large part of American history, Gross said.
Neither the Museum of Women’s History nor the Museum of the American Latino will start from scratch. According to the Washington Post, they will build on the work of the American Women’s History Initiative founded in 2018 and the Smithsonian Latino Center founded in 1997. The Women’s History Initiative has launched several exhibitions and continued to produce virtual events throughout the year, including upcoming programs on female spies during World War II and sexism in science.
Smithsonian officials say their work on such programs will help make the new museums a success. “The Smithsonian has unparalleled experience building national museums and is doing a lot of work to tell the stories of American women and Latinos,” the institution said in a statement to CNN. “We look forward to building two world-class museums to deepen these stories and help our country learn more about the impact women and Latinos have had on the fabric of our nation.”
And however you approach the task at hand, the goal should be to ensure that “every woman can go to this museum and learn something to relate to,” said Gross.
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