Interview with National Women’s History Museum President Joan Wages

Walking around downtown Washington DC is like passing by a kaleidoscope of museums. For lifelong political lobbyist Joan Wages, however, one museum is missing – a museum celebrating the achievements of women and one that can stand toe-to-toe with all the rest in Washington. Since 1996 the National Women’s History Museum has worked to make that dream a reality.

[img_assist|nid=186|title=NWHM President Joan Wages (right) with Meryl Streep (center) and Madeleine Albright (left)|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=300|height=224]Right now the home of the National Women’s History Museum is a website instead of a physical site. The online home of the project supports online exhibits and information about how to get involved with the museum and its goals. If you do get involved, you’ll certainly be in good company. One of the most ardent supporters lobbying for a permanent home for the historical record of our nation’s women is none other than Academy Award-winning actress Meryl Streep.

Legendary Women was lucky enough to speak with Joan Wages, the President and CEO of the National Women’s History Museum, about the importance of preserving the history of our nation’s women.

Why do we need a National Women’s History Museum? Why is it important to recognize women in history specifically?

Well we need a National Women’s History Museum because women have been left out of the telling of our national story. If you look at our history textbooks today, only one in ten figures is of a female. If you look at our national parks for example, less than eight percent of the statues are of a woman leader. Soif young girls growing up are looking around and they’re not seeing themselves reflected as our national story is being told, then we need to change that.

Who are some of the women from history that you would honor in the museum?

Well we will certainly honor the women who founded the suffrage movement like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott. We would honor various women in various roles. For instance Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, who in the 1940s was the first woman to get a PHD in mathematics from Yale. But she went on to create the first computer compilers, which are the precursors to today’s computers and then she co-wrote COBOL which is a computer program that is still used by the Defense Department. She is  an example that women have succeeded in every field, made significant achievements, and have had a great impact on our society. Yet we don’t know who they are.

Yes, that actually ties into my next question. History is filled with a lot of “legendary” women whose contributions are often overlooked or minimized. Could you tell our readers something about one of your favorite historical women they might not have known?

One of my favorites is Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the first woman to graduate from medical school. She had applied to numerous schools and they kept turning her down because she was female. Yet she had all the same experience that young men would have had in that day and age – the way that they prepared to go to medical school is that they would “practice” with a doctor. So she had spent time practicing with a doctor and had done the reading of the literature and all of those things and she finally got accepted into a medical school. So she showed up to begin attending as a student and they said it was a joke, they really didn’t intend for her to come to the medical school. So she held her feet to the fire and insisted on being accepted because she had the letter of acceptance. So they let her in, but then they would not allow her to go to labs and they wouldn’t allow her to go to some lectures. They ridiculed her and she was ostracized. As time went on she earned their respect and she graduated number one in her class.

Wow that’s such an interesting story! I’ve never heard of her before.

Right? I know! And the only reason we know the story about this is because of her brother. She and her brother would write letters back and forth and so we know some of her experiences, like her graduation, through her letters to her brother.

Right now the National Women’s History Museum’s home is largely online. Can you explain a little bit about the museum’s online format and what readers can find there?

Well they can find 21 online exhibits about various aspects of women’s history from the history of Chinese American women to the Suffrage Movement or the Progressive Era. There are exhibits about women in education, women at the Olympics and various and sundry. So they can learn about a lot of aspects of women’s history and we’re adding to that all the time. Then we also have over 300 biographies about women in history and we have lesson plans for educators and we have some games. So we try to appeal to a broad range of people that might have an interest in women’s history.

I noticed that for February the website was doing an exhibition on the achievements and struggles of African American women. Is there a new online exhibition planned for March and if so on what topic?

Well actually we’re going to launch a new exhibit in March that’s called “Daring Dames”. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s mainly a photographic exhibit but there are descriptions underneath of the various and sundry things that women have done over the many years that you wouldn’t expect women to be doing like training lions and things like that. So it’s more on the lighter side of women’s history. Yet all of these pictures are very informative as to what some women chose to do with their lives.

That sounds really fun!

Yes, I think it will be.

[img_assist|nid=188|title=Joan Wages (along with supporter Meryl Streep) in a January 2012 issue of Vogue|desc=Photo courtsey of Vogue Magaznie.|link=none|align=middle|width=831|height=505]

So Legendary Women is all about the representation of women in the media. So I found the online exhibition about women in film, especially the early era of the film industry, very interesting. What do you think we can take away from these women’s struggles to be accepted and represented in the media?

Well it informs us as to how women have changed society. And that women in film exhibit is a great example. There’s an explanation about why the old movie theaters look much like opera houses. The reason for that is because during the early part of film coming onto the national stage, when it was starting to be shown in theaters, the people making the films realized that women didn’t have the freedom that we have today. So they needed to create a place where women could come and feel safe. Since an opera house was a place where women would feel safe, they created the early movie theaters to look like opera houses just to accommodate that aspect of women’s lives.

Oh that’s really interesting.

When I read that I went “Oh my goodness, look at that!” you know? I mean because it’s one of those things that I’ve been to these old movie houses and you go ‘wow!” You know they made them so ornate during the early years and why would they do that? It sent a message that this was a safe place to be.

That is really interesting! So what’s been your proudest accomplishment with the National Women’s History Museum?

Well there have been numerous ones, but our first project was to lobby Congress and raise the money to move a statue of the three founders of the suffrage movement. The statue had been in the basement of the Capitol called the crypt and we were lobbying Congress to get it moved up into the rotunda so our nation’s foremothers would stand alongside our nation’s forefathers. So it took us a couple years of lobbying Congress and raising money to pay for the move, but we succeeded and the statue now stands in the rotunda. So that’s one of our proudest achievements.

That’s a great story! So where is the National Women’s History Museum in the process of getting a permanent, physical home? And where exactly would that home be?

We have legislation introduced that would allow us to purchase a site at 12th Street and Independence SW which is directly across the street from the National Mall. And the legislation passed out of the House of Representatives at the last session of Congress and came very close to passing out of the Senate. So we are hoping that this session we’ll be successful.

So then if it does pass through the Senate work can start on the actual museum?

Well we would first have to study the site and then bring in engineers and all of the architects and all of those things. Then we would need to raise the money to build the museum, so it would be probably several years before we could actually begin building.

So what can our readers do to help?

Well they can go to our website at and join. They can become a member of our museum and support this effort. They could let their friends know about these efforts. They could contact their member of Congress, their representative and their two senators and let them know how important that they think that it is that we have a museum to honor our nation’s women.

How important do you think it is to know women’s history, specifically as it impacts the portrayal of women in the media? Do you think knowing where women have been before and what they’ve accomplished would change the way people view women and the way they are represented now?

I think it would change the way that women are represented now. One of the things that is known about history is that to learn a history is very empowering. Women have been essentially disempowered by the fact that they don’t know their history. I’ve often said that women stand on historical quicksand. And one of our historians said that women have to recreate their history every generation because we don’t have a record of it.

So it is very important that women be empowered by knowing their history. That they learn from the women of the past that there were very brave women, courageous women and inspirational women. Women have participated in every field of endeavor; there have been scientists and businesswomen, educators and politicians. Women have played every role and have had a huge impact on our nation and yet for the most part women have not been given due recognition.

For more information on the National Women's History Museum check out their website at! Get involved by signing the petiton to give our nation's notable women their own museum. You can also become a MEMBER of the organization or DONATE to the cause. There are tons of great ways to get involved! What are you waiting for?