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No More Generic Lady of the House

It’s Women’s History Month, and the question begs to be asked: How well does your organization interpret women’s history? If you are the Emily Dickinson Museum or the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House, then the answer should be pretty well. But the majority of historic sites are not centered on the life of an individual women or cause. What other options are available for interpreting women’s history?

A recent post on the NCPH blog – Telling Real Women’s Stories by Molly Brookfield – makes a compelling argument that many museums and sites don’t tell women’s history very well:

“…. though there are many historic sites that include women’s experiences in their interpretation, too often they do so with broad brushstrokes, choosing stereotypes and generalizations over the experiences of the actual women.”

Reading that, I immediately thought of my days working as a volunteer coordinator at a historic home in Maryland that was guilty of exactly that offense. While the house was owned for many years by two sisters, the interpretation was stuck in the early 1800s and The Young Republic. They even got to say they had a chair George Washington sat in during a visit.

Brookfield goes on to challenge historic homes to research the real women that lived there, or the real women in the communities, and how those stories can be brought in to the interpretation of the home. I certainly would welcome a “No More Generic Lady of the House” campaign.

As the field continues to build on the model of the 21st Century Museum, museums and sites can connect the past to the present. The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center not only preserves and interprets the life of a historical person, it uses that person to effect change in today’s time. On the home page is their call to action:

“Stowe wrote the anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in 1852. The world was never the same. Abolition became possible. Emancipation became law. But today, in the 21st century, inequity is everywhere. What would Stowe do? What will YOU do?”

The center is a wonderful example of how a historical organization can create civic capital – what I call the measurement of an institution’s civic worth and contribution to society. Using Stowe’s life and work as a starting point, they conquer issues facing us today, including poverty, human trafficking, education, and health care. This is another great and rewarding way sites can use the life of a real historical woman.

Thinking more strategically, women’s history month doesn’t have to be only about when programs occur. Use the month for planning purposes. Make a note that every March staff reviews the interpretation program that involves women. Update the plan with any new research that came out the past year on women in your community or time period. Museums and sites should consider themselves a clearinghouse of information. If new research came out that is relevant or would enhance your visitor experience, you should share that with your audience. Just because your collection is in the past, doesn’t mean your interpretation should be.

And remember, women’s history should be built in year round. March is just when we have a Megaphone!

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Rebecca Price is Director of Marketing at AASLH and the founder of Chick History.

4 Responses to “No More Generic Lady of the House”

  1. March 29, 2013 at 1:28 pm, Michelle Moon said:

    A truly fantastic post – THANK YOU! It needed to be said, and clearly. Beyond the simple “disappearing” of women in historic houses, one of my biggest pet peeves is the same as Molly Brookfield’s – presenting women in “broad brushstrokes,” with stories that stereotype and trivialize. For years I kept a running tally in my head of the “decorating stories” that you often hear presented this way – they go something like “Mrs. Smith hated that carpet and ordered it ripped out, then purchased another that sent the family into debt!” There’s certainly a place for stories about establishing an affluent household, and the kinds of presentation and aesthetic that women were knowingly aiming for because it carried social capital in their world, but reducing that tale to one of ‘ha, frivolous women and their changeable taste’ is shallow and lazy. We can do so much better critiquing and contextualizing views of women’s activities; even when they weren’t leading major social movements like Stowe, they deserve for their concerns and efforts to be presented with seriousness and dignity.

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  2. March 29, 2013 at 4:20 pm, Rebecca Price said:

    Michelle – Thank you so much. I remember my days at historic homes telling little girls, “Now, during the day, you would be sewing or helping your mother, learning to tend to the kitchen, so on and so forth.” But we all know there is so much more out there. And we all feed off the same script, as if it was passed around and we just insert house name and lady’s name. I think Molly Brookfield’s suggestions are excellent, and I would love to see sites incorporate the real lives of their woman, and keep it updated with new research. I don’t think sites should ever be afraid to say, “new research came out this year, it’s not 100% yet, but….” If it is proven true, they broke the story, if it proven false, it demonstrates to audiences that history is an evolving discipline. What a great way to keep your site fresh and keep your audience coming back for more.

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  3. March 31, 2013 at 4:08 pm, Shouldn’t Miss News of the Week | Preservation and Place said:

    […] No More Generic Lady of the House:  Although the blog post is geared towards museum institutions/historic sites, and I know not all of you work in that field, I think it’s well worth a read.  I’m sure many of you have experienced a historic house tour where you learned very little about the women living in the house.  What are some of the best tours you have been on that include women’s history?  One of mine has to be Clouds Hill Victorian Mansion in Warwick, RI.  The woman who lived there was the first Woman Fire Chief in the World. […]

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  4. April 02, 2013 at 4:23 pm, Molly Brookfield said:

    Great post, Rebecca! I’m glad there are others out there who feel the same as I do and are working to change the dull, limiting version of women’s history I so often encounter… Thanks!

    Reply

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