Catching up with women's history
Long relegated to the footnotes of history, women are now getting museums of their own that honor the past and aim to shape the future.
Keep one eye on the past and the other on the future. That's the way women's lives come into focus at a new museum here in Dallas.Skip to next paragraph
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Even before it opens its exhibit space on Friday, The Women's Museum: An Institute for the Future, has begun to expand opportunities. Take the middle-school girls who checked out the technology training offered by the museum last spring.
Suddenly, their regular teachers said they were more engaged in class than they had ever been. They became so enthralled with computers - and with the female mentors who showed them that technology can be fun - that they asked to volunteer to help set up computers at the museum over the summer. When the interactive exhibits fire up this week, the handiwork of this new generation of tech-literate girls will also be on display.
Gone are the days when first ladies' gowns and suffragists' protest placards were tacked on as a sidebar to history exhibits. With five other major museums on the drawing board in the US, it's clear that spaces for telling women's stories are in demand. "Museums are ritual places where we present what we value. And with the beginning of the third millennium, people are recognizing that it's time that we say that women's contributions are valuable," says Cathy Bonner, founder and board president of The Women's Museum. "With more than 8,000 museums in the United States, there was not one comprehensive women's history museum until now."
What these new museums share is a sense that looking back on women's struggles and accomplishments is only worthwhile if it informs a look forward - a continuing movement toward equality.
The timing coincides with academic work that is reaching critical mass. "In the past 25 to 30 years, there's been incredible scholarship going on in women's studies..., but the fact is that those studies haven't had a broader chance to filter down into the public," says Elizabeth Colton, board president at the International Museum of Women, which is searching for a site in San Francisco.
Politicians and philanthropists are increasingly willing to throw their support behind these endeavors. That's partly because recent years have seen the anniversaries of both the 19th Amendment (granting women the right to vote, in 1920) and the 1848 Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., now home of the National Women's Hall of Fame.
"There is a spirit of exploration ... and an honest desire to say those contributions from the women whose shoulders we're standing on are indeed valuable," says Virginia S. Harris, chairman of the Christian Science Board of Directors. The board is planning new facilities for the Mary Baker Eddy Library for the Betterment of Humanity in Boston which will open in 2002.
A futuristic edge emerges both in the high-tech exhibits the museums are planning and in their educational outreach.
"The technology is driving the future of everything," says Candace O'Keefe, executive director of the Dallas museum. "Women need to acknowledge that ... it's leveling the playing field for us. If you're going to be a successful citizen in the 21st century, you've got to appreciate and be comfortable with technology, whether you're an artist or an astronaut."
Alvanetta Herring and some fellow eighth-graders at the nearby Pearl C. Anderson Middle Learning Center already have the proud glow that comes with beginning to master computer skills. "I learned how to build a roller coaster and how it moves.... It doesn't just fall flat, it has its own inertia," Alvanetta says of the course at the museum's Ronya Kozmetsky Institute for the Future.
Although classes will also be available to women, boys, and men, the girls' programs aim to reach them at an age when studies show they begin to lose enthusiasm for math and science, says education director Robin Windham. Alvanetta says she's always liked math and science, but the atmosphere here is more encouraging: "It makes you kind of nervous if you have all these boys looking at you. You don't want to be too smart or too dumb.... [Here] it's not a book thing. They tell you from experience. It makes you comfortable, and you can discuss things and how it's related to your life."
Ms. Windham also taught the girls in the pilot project how to take computers apart and put them back together, a foundational step that pleased Alvanetta's mom, Cynthia Herring-Flanagan.