May 10, 2012 / Opportunity

What’s The Problem With The National Women’s History Museum?


The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

I have always been a big fan of Meryl Streep, and even more so when I found out that she was determined to have the National Women’s Museum be more than a dream, but a reality. And not just in words, but in deeds. Ms. Streep had pledged a cool 1 million dollars to this important project. Having a museum on the Mall in DC that represents the vast contributions by women to this country seems a no-brainer, at least to me. (Photo credit: Gettys.)

Yes, we have Women’s History Month in this country and everything, but that is hardly sufficient to cover all that women have done to help form this nation from the Revolutionary War on. How many people are aware of Deborah Sampson, a young woman who actually fought in the Revolutionary War? Or how about Celia Burliegh, the first woman ordained to the Unitarian ministry in 1871? Or the 19th century humorist, Katherine McDowell? How many of us were taught what the Suffragists really went through, the imprisonment, the beatings, being choked, and more?

Or for a more recent example, Col. Martha McSally, the pioneering fighter pilot about whom fellow TNA contributor, Whitney Zahnd, wrote in terms of her Arizona Representative seat run? I could go on and on, but the bottom line is, much of the education and common discourse about US history glosses over or ignores the history of women.

The point is, we need a Women’s History Museum, and yet the current plan for one is fraught with difficulty, from finances to management (or lack thereof on both counts). Even a heavy hitting donor like Meryl Streep is having a hard time getting any kind of real response from the organization’s higher-ups about what is going on, according to this Huffington Post article.

Not only are there questions about how the funds are managed, but now those politicians who had been spearheading this endeavor have backed off:

[…] On Capitol Hill, where museum executives hoped a new bill would be introduced this spring to help secure a building site on the National Mall, lawmakers who have previously sponsored similar bills were silent.

A spokesman for Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), chief sponsor of the new legislation in the House, offered a series of “no comments” when asked about its status. On the Senate side, numerous email queries to the companion bill’s main sponsor, Republican Susan Collins of Maine, went unanswered.

The unusual quiet from lawmakers, who are trying to stay clear of controversy particularly in an election year, follows HuffPost’s report that NWHM has developed only minimal educational programming or connections within the academic community. Internal documents and public records, along with interviews with NWHM staff, board members and advisers revealed little progress after 16 years toward a $400 million fundraising goal — even as a board member, Ann Stone, sold direct mail services to the museum. In addition, the article cited sources who said board members who questioned the arrangement or sought to recruit independent professionals to challenge Wages and Stone (no relation to story’s reporter) were forced out.


Maloney has given no timetable to introduce a new bill, even though NWHM previously indicated it would be this spring; NWHM has since backed off the spring deadline. Maloney spokesman Ben Chevat offered, “No comment” to numerous questions by HuffPost about the status of the legislation. A bill introduced a year ago in the House lists 68 co-sponsors. A similar bill in the upper chamber was co-sponsored by 23 senators. (Please click here to read the rest of this article.)

What gives with this? Why is the Museum’s CEO, Joan Wages, being so evasive on what is happening with plans and funds after 16 years? Just what is going on there? HuffPost investigated those very questions:

[…] “There is no official way for anyone in the public to have any say in what decisions are made by ‘the organization known as’ the NWHM,” Denise Baer, a Boston University political scientist and a close observer of the museum, said in an email. “Their decision processes to-date have been closed and insular, and not representative of the full range of views.”

In her four years promoting the museum, Streep said she had never been invited to a board meeting until late March — after Wages got wind of HuffPost’s investigation. “Believe me, I’m going,” said Streep of the scheduled June meeting.


When she became president of the museum in 2007, Wages seemed like a plausible candidate to head a legislative campaign to secure a dedicated site. “[My] credentials to lead the NWHM are primarily due to my experience as a lobbyist in Washington on behalf of three Flight Attendant unions,” she told HuffPost in an emailed statement.

Stone, too, seemed like an ideal backer: a well-connected Washington insider on the fault line of women’s politics, a pro-choice Republican with good fundraising credentials and a knack for publicity. Stone has been a member of the museum’s board since it was founded and has twice served as treasurer. She has been the senior vice president since 2007.

But a closer look reveals a project rife with apparent conflicts of interest, sloppy record keeping, murky objectives and a stubborn resistance to outside oversight.

As president and CEO, Wages earns a salary of $167,537. Since 2009, she has also served as chair of the board of directors. Wages and Stone both said they leave the room during board meetings when potential conflicts arise. (Please click here to read the rest of this story, along with numerous examples of mismanagement at the NWHM.)

There is something seriously wrong going on with this, from the management in place to the jumping ship by politicians in this election year. I am glad that that Andrea Stone at Huffington Post is investigating why this major project has come to a screeching halt. And it is good that Meryl Strep is not being shy in speaking out about her own frustrations with the delay in moving this forward.

Frankly, though, we deserve better than this. We deserve to have this museum on the Mall in DC. Women’s contributions to this nation have helped shape it in major ways, and that history should be on display for all to see.

At least that’s what I think. How about you?

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  • Amy,

    Thank you so much for drawing attention to this important issue. It is disgraceful that the this has been banging around the hallway for this long and we still do not have a museum built. More disrespect: Not now, little girl — it’s not a good time for this.

  • marille

    that is what I have on file from last september:

    Gail Collins article:

    The legislation would simply allow a private group, conveniently named National Women’s History Museum, to buy an unlovely piece of federal land on Independence Avenue for the site. “We will pay fair market value and pay for construction,” said Joan Wages, the president. The bill allows five years to raise the money and break ground. If the group fails, the land would revert back to the government, which would get to keep the purchase price.

    The problem, Meryl Streep pointed out at a fund-raiser for the museum this week, is getting the government to take the money. At the gala, Duane Burnham, the former chairman of Abbott Laboratories, announced a donation of $1 million in honor of his four granddaughters. Streep then put up $1 million herself.


    ” is that two senators, Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, have put holds on the bill. A hold is one of those quaint Senate traditions that ensures that each individual member of the chamber will have the power to bring all activity to a screeching and permanent halt.”

    Sen. Jim DeMint:

    Sen. Tom Coburn

  • marille

    it probably did not help that a former strong republican supporter senator Ted Stevens is gone from the senate.

  • Thanks for the comments, y’all. I appreciate it.

    It is just so frustrating that STILL women have to work so hard to have our history recognized. Unbelievable…

  • One thing we can all agree on — it’s taking much too long to get the National Women’s History Museum a place on the National Mall. Since the land is owned by the Federal Government, it literally takes an act of Congress to have a site on the Mall. If we were to share all the roadblocks that have been thrown in the way, you would be appalled and angry.

    Here is one of the most frustrating, but not the latest: Near the end of the last session of Congress, which concluded in December 2010, the House passed the NWHM bill on a voice vote and there were plenty of votes lined up to pass the bill in the Senate. It was two male Senators — Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) — who placed an anonymous hold on the bill, blocking a vote long enough for the clock to run out. Bills must be reintroduced if they are not passed by the end of a Congressional session.

    To put the 10 year effort to get a museum site in Washington, DC in perspective, it took the African American Museum over 100 years to get its site on the Mall.

    NWHM has asked Huffington Post for a retraction of their articles due to erroneous information and gross omission of facts. Some of the individuals quoted have complained to NWHM that the reporters asked only questions to get negative responses and then ended the interview.

    NWHM has received unqualified audit opinions (meaning no significant problems noted) since 2005. The auditors and other independent reviewers who were given full access to Board members, staff and documents have found the Museum’s managements practices to be sound. Any suggestion of mismanagement is simply false. NWHM is a growing organization and must balance its programs and efforts to fit within its resources—human and financial.

    It seems history has a way of repeating itself. Remember, there were women who actively opposed us getting the vote! It will take all of us rallying around the effort make a Museum on the Mall happen. Let’s let Congress know we want a home for the National Women’s History Museum on the National Mall—NOW!

    Linda Denny
    Vice President
    Board of Directors
    National Women’s History Museum

  • marille

    Silencing achievements of women is one important tool of any male dominated society. the example I am most aware of are female composers. it has come so far, that no one can name a single composer. you have to interview a lot of people before some one knows. I have started a newsletter featuring these ladies, this month Amy Beach together with the few concerts, CDs and U-tubes which play them. for more write to