On December 10 and 11 of 2012, the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites and the National Park Service held a history-making workshop at the Sewall-Belmont House & Museum in Washington, D.C. This is the first time a workshop has been held to specifically address the need for researching, interpreting and preserving women’s history at historic places within the park system. Attended by more than 50 people from all over the U.S., the workshop had representatives from the fields of archeology, architecture, preservation and women’s history, and included park service administrators, superintendents, historians, and rangers.
The workshop opened with a welcome from NCWHS Vice President and Executive Director of the Sewall-Belmont House & Museum Page Harrington, followed by very encouraging remarks from both Acting Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife & Parks Rachel Jacobsen and National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis. NPS Associate Directors Stephanie Toothman and Julia Washburn, and NCWHS President Heather Huyck actively participated both days, underscoring how significant they believed the workshop to be. NCWHS board member Sue Ferentinos and NPS staffer Elizabeth Hoermann were the event’s Chief Facilitators—a key role when there are 50 engaged and passionate people who have only two days to accomplish so much! Holding the workshop at the Sewall-Belmont House & Museum, an NHL and NPS affiliated site, with its busts of eminent foremothers, parade-size suffrage banners, and feminist library reminded everyone that just as they had benefitted from others’ actions, they now had to do their share.
The workshop combined presentations from experts in relevant fields, small guided group discussions, and large group discussions in an effort to ensure that different voices were heard. Presenters included Julia Washburn and Stephanie Toothman, who spoke about current efforts within the park service; Heather Huyck, who focused on the women’s history found in tangible resources; historians Antonia Castaneda and Mary Ryan, who spoke of conceptual issues, including the tension between celebrating and commemorating the past; and Lexi Lord, director of the NHL program, who noted that sites related to postwar feminism, women in medicine, science, engineering, and the military, and LBGT, Native and Asian American history are not well represented within the program. The heads of three key sister organizations—the Organization of American Historians (Alan Kraut, American University); the Society for Architectural History (Abigail Van Slyck, Connecticut College) and the Vernacular Architecture Forum (Susan Kern, College of William & Mary)—were also there and active participants.
Tuesday evening we headed to the U.S. Capitol for a program and reception where the workshop’s recommendations were presented to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. Speaking movingly of his own mother and grandmother, Secretary Salazar reiterated the importance of telling all Americans’ stories within the Park Service, but especially women’s stories. The reception, generously sponsored by the National Park Foundation and Eastern National, featured Stephanie Toothman and Julia Washburn discussing the workshop and Heather Huyck presenting the workshop’s recommendations.
What’s next? The workshop was a great opportunity for the NCWHS in many ways. We have a great opportunity to move ahead on our organizational goal of telling the story of everyone who was there, especially women. Our partnership with the NPS was strengthened and has the potential to become even stronger as we help implement the recommendations. The NCWHS has sent a letter to Secretary Salazar asking him to move ahead on the recommendations and reaffirming our willingness to partner with him to make them happen. We have broadened our network of people who care about doing women’s history at places with tangible resources, attaching names and faces and hearing new perspectives. In the end our mission is simple, we want to tell the whole story - the one that includes the enslaved woman up at dawn…the wife keeping a business with her husband…the single woman moving to teach in a new place…the women who lived along the Santa Fe Trail…the women who pushed for the vote and the women who genuinely opposed them…. The whole American story.
UPDATE: The workshop was covered in the March 2013 issue of the American Historical Association's newsletter Perspectives on History. Susan Ferentinos, project manager and board member of the NCWHS, is quoted as saying: "I believe the 'Telling the Whole Story' summit marks an exciting new era within the National Park Service, where interpreters and historians move beyond bureaucratic departments and work together to capture the full complexity of the U.S. past.… Currently, we are forming working groups to pursue each of the summit's recommendations; creating a webinar on including women in NPS interpretation; developing a survey of women's history sites that are not yet under the protection of preservation programs; and working with the National Historic Landmarks program to nominate additional landmarks significant to women's history. The combined result of these and similar efforts will be a more robust and relevant Park Service."