The New-York Historical Society’s Center for Women’s History will open its doors this spring, a season many expected to spend settling into life with the United States’ first female president.
Instead, the country finds itself in a different moment, one that brought millions of people to women’s marches in Washington and around the world in January. But the need for a permanent space devoted to the history of women in America has not changed.
“There isn’t any museum where women’s history in the general sense is on the permanent agenda,” said Louise Mirrer, president and chief executive of the New-York Historical Society. “There just isn’t.”
In America, there are museums devoted to spies, to roller skating and to Bigfoot, and yet stories of half the population are told mostly around the margins of narratives focused on something else. While there are museums devoted to specific themes in women’s history, like the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, the New-York Historical Society says it will fill a crucial void by examining women’s history writ large.
The idea for the center began to percolate 10 years ago, Mirrer said, when the historical society put on an exhibition of Tiffany lamps. It centered on a discovery that the lamps, always assigned to the genius of a man, Louis Comfort Tiffany, had, in fact, been designed and created largely by women, led by Clara Driscoll, the head of the women’s glass-cutting department at Tiffany Studios.
The Center for Women’s History will take over the fourth floor of the New-York Historical Society, housed in an imposing beaux-arts building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, across from Central Park. One hundred Tiffany lamps will be on permanent display there, in a dim space where they will glow like luminescent jewels.
The center will also have rotating exhibitions, the first of which, “Saving Washington,” will focus on women’s contributions in the early years of the United States, especially those of the former first lady Dolley Madison. Catherine Allgor, a consultant on the show and the director of education at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, said Madison helped create a social arena for politicking and deal-making in the early republic.
“Women in Washington built this sphere where you could lobby for legislation, where you could bring people of two parties together without them killing each other,” Allgor said. “All of that was happening in their world, not in the official world. That’s politics, and that’s how you get stuff done.”
Visitors will be able to sit at a dining table, become a character — like the wife of a diplomat or a man from the South who owned slaves — and participate in a conversation, choosing from among several responses as “Mrs. Madison,” speaking from a video monitor, suggests topics of conversation.
By offering interactive installations like the dining table, the Center for Women’s History hopes to tempt people to come, and to stay, with the promise of a fuller experience. The center will also offer an education space, a place where students can use an audio recording booth or a 3-D printer, or where visitors can hang out and read books.
Allgor is also on the board of the National Women’s History Museum, a project that is about 20 years in the making, which its founders hope will one day be built near the National Mall in Washington. Last year, a bipartisan Congressional commission put forward suggestions for how to make the museum a reality, but it still has no physical home (it has a website), and the process has been slow.
While having a woman as president might seem like a good thing for a women’s history museum, Allgor said that the current political moment could actually make the need for such an institution more immediate.
“If Mrs. Clinton had become president, there may have been a new focus and maybe even new resources and energy about women in leadership, and that would have been great,” Allgor said of Hillary Clinton. “But one of the great side effects of what’s happened in this election is we’re more mindful about things; we understand that some things we took for granted, we actually can’t. There is a kind of energy around women’s issues that just wasn’t present last year.”
Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., who has been a vigorous longtime supporter of the National Women’s History Museum, said that despite the intensely polarized political climate in Washington, a museum devoted to half the population “is not and should not be a political issue.”
“Women are currently underrepresented in monuments, museums and textbooks that depict and honor U.S. history,” Maloney said in an email. “How do we expect to inspire young women if we do not recognize and celebrate the achievements of those who came before?”
“We often hear of Paul Revere’s historic ride, but somehow, our children are not taught about Sybil Ludington,” she continued. “Ludington, the daughter of a colonel in the Continental Army, was just 16 years old when she rode through the night an even greater distance than Revere to warn her father’s troops about the approaching British forces. When stories like these are lost, it is a loss to all of us.”
The Center for Women’s History will also devote space to at least one woman whose historical accomplishments are much more recent: Billie Jean King, the tennis star who pushed for equal prize money for female and male players. Wimbledon finally equalized the amounts in 2007, after decades of appeals.
King has donated artifacts to the center, including trophies, rackets and several tennis dresses, one of which she wore to her last appearance at Wimbledon in 1982. She also donated a pair of her glasses and some blue Adidas sneakers she helped design. She wore the same style of shoe during the “Battle of the Sexes” match in 1973, in which she beat Bobby Riggs.
King said that years ago she began to consider donating her things, which had been in storage. After meeting with the historical society, she said, she made her decision overnight.
“I was thinking about it from a civil rights point of view, not my tennis,” she said.
“I’m a big believer in the more you know about history, the more you know about yourself,” she continued. “Every item tells a story.”