A Public Historian’s Perspective on Women’s History Month

March 25, 2021

This past month we all have dedicated our time and efforts to honor women’s history. Women’s history month is especially significant for me since I am a cis woman who appreciates the focus on women’s significant contributions throughout history. However, we all need to not only acknowledge women’s history does not occur one month out of the year, but we should be honoring all women-women of color, transwomen, indigenous women-who have made an impact and are often ignored when discussing women’s history. Over the years, we celebrate women’s history month by sharing achievements women have accomplished from the past to more recent years.

Museums also take part in celebrating women’s history month by developing, promoting, and implementing exhibits and programs focused on women’s history. For instance, the Museum of the American Revolution hosted a virtual Zoom presentation called “Remember the Ladies”: The World Premiere of a New Choral Work by Dr. Melissa Dunphy that is presented with their exhibit When Women Lost the Vote: A Revolutionary Story, 1776-1807. The experience is a live broadcast from the Museum for the choral world premiere of Dunphy’s “Remember the Ladies,” which sets excerpts from the letter for a cappella mixed chorus, performed by the 40-voice community choir, PhilHarmonia. The Wisconsin Historical Society has a free online panel discussion on exploring how women’s stories and experiences can be told in new ways.

Wisconsin Historical Society’s online panel discussion Sharing Women’s History: Exploring New Stories and Formats for Engaging Audiences discussed examples of innovative programming and best practices for interpreting complex stories that will aim to engage new audiences. A couple examples include DyckmanDISCOVERED at the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum, which investigates the stories of enslaved people belonging to the Dyckman family and the community that is now called Inwood in New York City, as well as virtual programs and poetry festivals at The Emily Dickinson Museum. Some of the panelists include Mary van Balgooy, Vice President of Engaging Places, LLC, and Director at the Society of Woman Geographers; Meredith S. Horsford, Executive Director at the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum; and Brooke Steinhauser, Program Director at the Emily Dickinson Museum. Their discussion also included the added challenges of and possibilities for engaging new audiences through virtual engagement.

The Old North Church has a Digital Speaker Series, and it is called Revolutionary Women, Live! Presented by Old North Church Historic Site and the Freedom Trail Foundation, it was an hour-long program with two historians engaging participants in learning about the unique ways women of Boston influenced and shaped the world around them throughout the centuries. They focused on some women including Anne Hutchinson, Phillis Wheatley, and Melnea Cass. Anne Hutchinson was a spiritual preacher in Massachusetts Bay Colony in the seventeenth century and Melnea Cass was one of Boston’s most beloved and effective advocates for African Americans in Boston. At the end of the program, there was an interactive question and answer session to help participants delve deeper into women’s history.

Three Village Historical Society has a lecture series that has been on the Zoom virtual platform over the past year, and this month the virtual lecture was The Founding Mothers of the United States. Guest lecturer author Selene Castrovilla discussed her book she wrote about founding mothers, both well-known and others that were previously not part of the narrative in our history. From the program’s description, the lecture will address that:

Many women helped shape a free and independent United States of America. These smart, brave women were ambassadors, fostering peace between Native Americans and Europeans. They risked their lives by writing, printing, and distributing information about the fight for independence. They supported their husbands during battle and even donned disguises to join the army.

Throughout the presentation, Castrovilla shared content from her book about the founding mothers in the United States. In addition to discussing the well-known founding mothers, she shared information about founding mothers whose stories are not told as much as founding mothers such as Martha Washington. For instance, there were a group of women in North Carolina who had their own protests against the unfair taxes on tea and clothing.

On October 25, 1774, about a year after the Boston Tea Party, 51 women in Edenton, North Carolina drafted and signed a declaration that they will boycott British tea and clothing until the products were no longer taxed by England. The protest became known as the Edenton Tea Party. Another example of women Castrovilla discussed about was Phillis Wheatley who was an enslaved poet.

Wheatley was born in West Africa around 1753 and was abducted by slave traders and was forced onto a ship to America when she was seven years old. She was enslaved in Boston, Massachusetts, her owner noticed how smart she was and decided to educate her which was rare since most slaves suffered under harsh conditions and were not allowed to learn to read and write. Wheatley began to write poems when she was thirteen, and her first published poem appeared in a Boston newspaper on December 21, 1767. In 1773, she sailed with her owner’s son to England where a book of her poetry was published. She was given her freedom shortly after her book was published and her return to Boston. While she wrote a poem celebrating George Washington’s selection as army commander, she also believed the issue of slavery prevented the colonists from the true heroism they could have achieved during the American Revolution. Castrovilla also shared the story of Nanyehi/Nancy Ward who was an Indigenous woman born in Chota, the Cherokee capital, which is now part of Tennessee, in 1738.

Nanyehi fought alongside her husband in a battle between the Cherokee and another Native Nation, the Muscogee Creeks. When her husband was killed during the battle, Nanyehi picked up his rifle and led the battle where she earned the title Ghigau, or “Beloved Woman”, for her bravery. She later became a leader of the Women’s Council of Clan Representatives where she excelled as negotiator and ambassador. While they were in war, Nanyehi tried to achieve peace between Indigenous people in North America and the settlers. When the Revolutionary War began, the Cherokee fought alongside the British to prevent losing more Cherokee land to the settlers, and Nanyehi warned the settlers of Cherokee attacks since she did not want increased hostilities between her nation and the settlers.

  If interested in learning more about Castrovilla and her works, she has a website that promotes most of her books. To learn more about the TVHS lecture series and purchase her book, I included links in the list below. 

Castrovilla’s book reminded me of Cokie Roberts’ book Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation, except the major difference between these two books is her book is geared towards young adult audiences while Roberts’ book focuses on addressing women’s history on academia audiences. I appreciate, as a public historian with an interest in Early American history, that there are programs that discuss women’s contribution and involvement in before and during the American Revolution. Also, I appreciate indigenous women’s stories are being more included in these programming options since I not only enjoy learning more history, but it is also a lot more that I am learning now about indigenous people than what was being taught when I was attending school as a child. We need to continue to do more to acknowledge and understand indigenous history as well as remember that we are on land first occupied by indigenous people.

The previously listed examples of how museums honor and celebrate women’s history month are only a small sample of what I noticed and does not represent what all museums are doing. I have included more links to examples museums have honored and celebrated women’s history month and resources they have available on women’s history. If there are any that I have not listed, please tell me about them and if possible, share a link.

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Additional Resources:

Women’s History in the National Women’s History Museum

Boston Women’s Heritage Trail

Facing History and Ourselves: 6 Virtual Exhibitions and Teacher Resources for Women’s History Month

Women’s History Month website

Why March is National Women’s History Month

National Women’s History Alliance

Links:

Museum of the American Revolution’s When Women Lost the Vote: A Revolutionary Story

Museum of the American Revolution’s When Women Lost the Vote: A Revolutionary Story, Virtual Exhibit

Wisconsin Historical Society

Dyckman Farmhouse Museum’s DyckmanDISCOVERED

Emily Dickinson Museum

Old North Church Events, Digital Speaker Series

Three Village Historical Society Lecture Series

Selene Castrovilla’s website

The Founding Mothers of the United States by Selene Castrovilla

Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation by Cokie Roberts

Boston Women’s Heritage Trail: Melnea A. Cass

National Women’s History Museum: Anne Hutchinson

Facing Today: “Making Space for Women’s History”

Facing Today: “Teaching in the Light of Women’s History”

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