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.

I’m on Buy Me a Coffee. If you like my work, you can buy me a coffee and share your thoughts. ☕ https://buymeacoffee.com/lbmfmusedblog

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”

100th Anniversary of the Ratification of the 19th Amendment

January 16, 2020

This past weekend I attended a fundraiser event called the Snow Ball, and this year’s theme was the 100th Anniversary of the Ratification of the 19th Amendment. According to the United States Constitution, the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote and was ratified on August 18, 1920. The fundraiser was for the Mill Museum located in Willimantic, Connecticut. The Mill Museum decided this year’s Snow Ball theme to introduce their upcoming exhibit opening in mid-February called Unlacing the Corset, Unleashing the Vote, and the associated lectures to bring the history alive. In addition to dancing along with live music from local band The Flamingos and participating in the silent auction, each table had a black box to collect 1920s ballots for a mock election; the results will be posted on their Facebook page. We will see if the result is different from the 1920 results when women first had the right to vote.

Centerpiece from Snow Ball

After attending the Snow Ball, I reflected on the significance of the anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. It is incredible that it has been only 100 years that women were able to voice their views by participating in voting in state and federal elections. A lot of American women, including my great-grandmothers, were able to vote for the first time. It also took close to one hundred years to see a woman attempt to run for president, and this year at the time of this post we have three women running for president. We could potentially elect a female president one hundred years after the 19th Amendment was ratified. There is so much we still need to accomplish for equity rights for all American citizens.

Ever since the Mill Museum fundraiser I wanted to find out what other museums are also commemorating the ratification of the 19th Amendment. For instance, the National Archives Museum has an exhibit Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote, that can be visited in person and virtually on their website, which highlights the relentless struggle of diverse activists throughout U.S. history to secure voting rights for all American women. It will be open from Friday, May 10, 2019 to Sunday, January 3, 2021.

There is also a 200-year old house located a block from the U.S. Capitol called the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument; it served as the headquarters for the National Women’s Party founded by women’s suffrage leader Alice Paul in 1916. The National Park Service operates a museum about the suffrage movement and the fight for women’s rights out of the historic house, and ranger-led tours are run Wednesdays through Sundays at 9:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 2:00 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.

At the National Museum of American History, an exhibit called American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith which opened in June 2017. The exhibit focuses on the changing political ideals and principles of the nation, citizenship in a pluralistic society, and political participation and engagement. One of the objects that is featured in the exhibit is the table on which Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote the Declaration of Sentiments.

Another example of an exhibit celebrating the women’s suffrage is one I visited last November at the Middlebury Museum of Art during the New England Museum Association (NEMA) conference week. The exhibit discussed the question “Should American women vote?” and why many have not considered this question until the last century. Inside the exhibit, there were vintage photographs, banners, and memorabilia that coincided with the 100th anniversary.

Many museums are doing various exhibits, events, and programs to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. I included links to the ones I referred to and the ones I found in my search.

What museums do you know are celebrating the 100th anniversary? How are you going to commemorate the 100th anniversary?

Links:

https://millmuseum.org

http://museum.middlebury.edu/exhibitions/upcoming/node/2976

https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/baltimore-museums-2020-vision-exhibition-19th-amendment-13500/

https://www.si.edu/spotlight/votes-for-women

https://americanhistory.si.edu/democracy-exhibition

https://www.nps.gov/wori/2020.htm

https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=63

https://www.2020centennial.org/

https://nationalwomenshistoryalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/gazette_How-Women-Won-Vote-.pdf

https://www.ncsl.org/blog/2019/08/07/celebrating-the-100th-anniversary-of-the-19th-amendment.aspx

https://www.archivesfoundation.org/women/

https://museum.archives.gov/rightfully-hers

https://www.nationalwomansparty.org/

Women Represented in Historical Narrative and Museums

Originally posted on Medium, March 23, 2017.

In honor of women’s history month, I thought I would discuss women’s roles in history and how women are represented in museums. I specifically will talk about the women in the historical narrative of the museums I worked for. Also, I will discuss a lesson plan that I wrote for my capstone project, Women of the Eighteenth Century at Stanley-Whitman House, as a requirement for my Master’s degree in Public History at Central Connecticut State University. The lesson plan I wrote focused on the women who lived in the Stanley-Whitman House in Farmington, Connecticut, and women’s role in 18th century America.

In addition to my experience writing this lesson plan, I also worked at Connecticut Landmarks’ Butler-McCook House where strong independent women once lived in and heavily involved in the Hartford community. For instance, there was Frances McCook who was a substitute organist at her father’s (Reverend John James McCook) church at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in East Hartford and was an active member of the Antiquarian Landmarks Society (now called Connecticut Landmarks) who saved a historic building from being torn down by suggesting it is moved onto her family property. Women’s roles in history as we are reminded this month are significant in our society.

Women have an impact on our society in large and small ways. My experience on teaching Hartford history and the women’s role in preserving that history is an example of this. Stanley-Whitman House is a living history center and museum that teaches through the collection, preservation, research, and dynamic interpretation of the history and culture of early Farmington. My lesson plan was written based on this mission and on my experience teaching programs there. The purpose of this lesson plan was to aid school-age children in becoming more aware of the study of Early American women’s history and its significance to the overall local and American eighteenth-century history. According to my capstone project, it is based on the requirements of a Teaching with Historic Places lesson plan which focuses on eighteenth century New England women and it takes a specific look at the lives of two women who lived in the Farmington, Connecticut, Mary Steele Smith and Susannah Cole Whitman.

Mary Steele Smith was born in 1709 to Ebenezer Steele and Sarah Hart. She inherited the house from her father who purchased it from Deacon John Stanley, whose father (John Stanley) built the house between 1709 and 1720 using wood and stone, and used post and beam construction for the frame. At the time of her father’s death, he did not have male heirs who would have inherited his property so therefore Mary inherited the property. In 1725 18-year-old Mary and her 25-year-old husband Thomas Smith moved in, becoming its first occupants. Smith was a professional weaver who also farmed along the banks of the Farmington River. Mary and Thomas Smith lived in the house for ten years before selling the property and moving to another house in Farmington.

The second family that lived in the Stanley-Whitman house was the Whitman family. Reverend Samuel Whitman, a minister of the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Farmington, purchased the property in 1735 for his son Solomon Whitman who was born in 1711. Solomon married Susannah Cole (Cowles), born on October 22, 1721, in 1736. Susannah was the daughter of Caleb Cowles (1682–1725) who was a deacon and Abigail Woodford (1685–1736). Cowles and Woodford were both descendants of the parties that followed Thomas Hooker to Connecticut in the 1630s; James Cowles, Caleb’s great grandfather, came over to New England with his family from Essex County in England and sometime in 1633 his family traveled to where they settled Hartford, and Woodford was the granddaughter of Thomas Woodford who was one of the parties led by Thomas Hooker to Hartford, of which he became one of the founders in 1633. Based on these connections, Susannah would have come into a lot of wealth, land, and prestige.

Both were economically comfortable, two white New England women who were members of the First Congregationalist Church. Also, both Mary Smith and Susannah Whitman were landowners, mothers, daughters, faithful Christians, and servants within their communities, one in the early eighteenth century, and the other before the Revolution. The lesson includes background information about the history of Farmington and about women of different social and economic status to inform students that not every individual who lived during the eighteenth century lived the same way Mary and Susannah lived.

The capstone also includes background information on the history of Farmington taken from research materials found in the Stanley-Whitman House library and collections as well as Central Connecticut State University’s Elihu Burritt Library for more background information about eighteenth century New England. Farmington was settled in 1640 when English settlers arrived in the Tunxis Native Americans territory. For the first 100 years in Farmington, the main occupation was farming. By 1700, the self-reliant community included carpenters, blacksmiths, tailors, shoemakers, tanners, weavers, and coopers. As the number of industries grew in Farmington in the late 1700s, the town became increasingly prosperous. After the Revolutionary War, the town became a trading center, selling Yankee wares in the South and importing goods from as far away as China. Townspeople began wearing silks and satins, buying luxuries such as pianos and phaetons — light horse-drawn carriages — and spending money on fine new homes. The lesson plan has an impact on the Stanley-Whitman House because it provides them another lesson plan for visiting students who come to the museum.

This project provided a way to teach eighteenth century New England women’s history to students. The capstone project began with a paper called “Eighteenth-Century Women’s Roles in the Stanley-Whitman House: Typical or Extraordinary?” which discusses the question of whether Mary Smith and Susannah Whitman were typical women of their time or were exceptional; based on the available evidence, I discovered that Mary Steele Smith and Susannah Cole Whitman were largely typical women of their respective eras within their socio-economic class. After the paper, the capstone project continued with the lesson plan. The lesson plan was divided into sections: an introduction to the history of Stanley-Whitman House, about the lesson which has a citation and where the curriculum fits into the national and state learning standards, objectives for students, and materials for students. Another section in the lesson plan was teaching activities which includes a map activity, a few reading comprehension activities that include narratives of Farmington and women’s history especially the women who lived in Stanley-Whitman House, and object-based activities inside the house that help students compare the women in the house as well as the 18th century. The experience of writing this lesson plan provided an opportunity for me to learn more about women’s roles in the local community.

I continued to learn more about women in the local community by learning more about three women who were dedicated to preserving their family history and Hartford’s history. Connecticut Landmarks, originally known as the Antiquarian Landmarks society, obtained two historic houses from members of the organization in Hartford.

The first property was the Butler-McCook House located on Main Street across the street from Capitol Street; it was originally owned by four generations of the same family from the 1780s until 1971, and the last living member who owned it was Frances McCook (1877–1971). In 1907 and 1908, she traveled around the world with her father stopping in places like Spain, Italy, Egypt, Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong and then visited her sister Eliza in China; Eliza McCook was a teacher who moved to China to become a missionary. As a member of the Antiquarian Society, she offered to save Amos Bull House by having it moved onto her property.

The eighteenth-century building was originally a dry goods store and a residence and then it was used as a hardware store, an auto dealership, insurance offices and a restaurant; Amos Bull (1744–1825) was born in Enfield and grew up there and in Farmington. He completed his home in late 1789 and advertised that he was open for business in December 1789; his store sold linens, hardware and household items. In 1968, the building was threatened with urban renewal-related demolition but with the efforts of the community and Frances’ generosity the endangered building was moved to the rear of the Butler-McCook House.

Toward the end of her life, Frances decided to make the McCook house into a museum and spent years organizing family letters and diaries as well as taking care of the house. She wanted people to enjoy the house for its architectural significance as well as her family’s role in the Hartford community and the history of Hartford. What I have learned from these experiences and throughout my life is that women have contributed so much to our society, and they inspire me to be continue to achieve my goals as a person, historian, and museum educator.

Find out more about these women and places they lived in here:
http://www.ctlandmarks.org
http://www.stanleywhitman.org

What have you learned about women in history? If you had to choose a favorite female historical figure, who would it be? Do you have any women in your life you look up to for inspiration?