It's Taken 20 Years for Congress to Consider a Women's Museum. Under Trump, What Now?
In 1992, when New York City Democrat Carolyn Maloney won her congressional seat, the number of female representatives nearly doubled overnight to 47; she was part of the largest female contingent ever voted into the 435-member chamber in a single election. Maloney quickly bonded with 10-term Colorado Democrat Patricia Schroeder, who'd been one of 16 women in her first term. (Congress "is about Chivas Regal, thousand-dollar bills, Learjets, and beautiful women," one of Schroeder's fellow legislators told her soon after she arrived. "Why are you here?")
"I was her pet," Maloney recalls. "She'd have these sessions to discuss women's issues, and I'd be the only one there." After a few weeks, Schroeder admitted the truth: "Oh, Carolyn! I invite everybody. You're just the only one who comes."
Righteous indignation over the second- class status of women has fueled Maloney since the beginning of her political career. She was elected to the New York City Council in 1982, where her signature issue was affordable childcare, and her allies were loud and proud feminist stalwarts Bella Abzug and Geraldine Ferraro. The three were at New York's city hall in 1992 when the Supreme Court announced its ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, affirming its support for Roe v. Wade but givingstates new license to undercut the milestone case. Maloney rushed to find a telephone: "I called my husband, Clif, and we talked about it, and I announced I would run for Congress that afternoon." (Clifton Maloney, an investment banker and a passionate mountain climber, died in 2009 while descending a Tibetan peak.)
One evening, early in 1995, Schroeder buttonholed Maloney on the House floor. "Carolyn," Schroeder said, "it's going to take a New York woman to get the New York women out of the basement." Schroeder had some history to share: In 1921, National Woman's Party founder Alice Paul had presented Congress with a seven-ton marble statue of suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott. Distinctly unimpressed, the all-male legislature decreed that the monument could be placed in the Rotunda for 48 hours, after which it was to be hauled one floor below to the so-called Crypt. It had been there ever since.
"I couldn't believe it!" Maloney says. "But I thought, That's easy. I'll just get the statue from the basement." The Rotunda was already filled with statues and portraits of men we know well—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; the sole woman represented was Pocahontas, kneeling at a white minister's feet for her baptism, in a painting.
Maloney drafted a resolution to authorize the relocation of the monument, but members protested, grousing that it was too expensive to move, and too heavy—"like the whole republic would collapse if you brought it upstairs," Schroeder says. "But Carolyn wouldn't give it up." Maloney raised $86,000 in private funds for a study to establish that, yes, the Rotunda could handle the seven tons; she sent a letter to then–Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, invoking the suffragists' famous petition: "How long must we wait?"
Gingrich finally backed the measure, and Maloney was sure she'd prevailed, until, she recalls, Connecticut Republican Nancy Johnson ran up to her and Schroeder and cried, "We can't move the statue!" The male Republican leadership objected on the grounds that the suffragists weren't "pretty enough" to grace the Rotunda. (Johnson disputes that version of events; she says she herself was "ambivalent" about the monument.) Furious, Maloney launched a newsletter, The State of the Statue: All the Excuses Fit to Print, and had it delivered to every member of the House. In 1996, the resolution passed, provided that the $75,000 cost of the move be covered by a party other than the federal government.
Maloney's fight to move one statue up one floor might have been just a footnote to history had it not sparked the idea that the marble suffragists deserved better, as did their entire sex. The Rotunda may have been filled with the likenesses of heroic American men; it was time, Maloney thought, for American women to get their own museum.
"We have museums for everything," Maloney exclaims from the head of a heavy wooden dining table in the center of her office on Manhattan's Upper East Side. "We have museums for spies, for stamps, for textiles, for the American Indian, now for African Americans; there's a plan for a museum for Latinos." Maloney backed each of these efforts (all but the spies and textiles are federally funded), and she knows museums take decades to get built: For the National Museum of African American History and Culture, it was about 30 years from the time the first bill was written on its behalf until the day it opened last September; for the Holocaust Museum, the timeline was roughly 15 years. Still, it's been 19 years since Maloney first made the case for a women's museum, and it's yet to be even close to green-lighted. "Why are women always an afterthought?" she says.
Five years ago, Maloney asked a question that became iconic. A member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, she was attending a hearing convened to consider whether Obamacare should cover birth control. "Where are the women?" she demanded, facing a panel of five male experts who'd been selected by the Republican majority to testify about the issue. The image went viral. It's no secret that women are missing in the halls of power—from the House, where the number of female representatives can't break even 20 percent, to Fortune 500 companies, where just 5 percent of CEOs are female. This imbalance has been acutely underlined by President Trump's new cabinet, which has fewer women and minorities than any since Ronald Reagan's, and none in the top-tier positions.
A museum can't fix all that, of course. But recognizing women's accomplishments as well as their struggles—even the divisions among them, among us—just might help open the eyes of those who still can't really see us as full people, Maloney believes. Not to mention that a museum could rally women to press for more power and influence by broadening their imaginations, their sense of what's possible. "I grew up in south Mississippi—there was not a lot of opportunity or a tremendous amount of encouragement to do something different," says Tennessee representative Marsha Blackburn, a vocal Republican supporter of the museum. "Carolyn and I have talked an awful lot about this. You didn't just land where you are. You had to push back."
Maloney, who is now 71, introduced her first museum bill in 1998. Calling for the creation of a congressional advisory committee to consider possible sites and propose acquisition strategies for content, it had 53 cosponsors and never made it out of committee—the GOP just wasn't interested. A year later, Maloney put forth an identical measure, and, again, it languished.
The strongest opponents of a national women's museum, then and now, are high-profile conservative groups. As former congresswoman Michele Bachmann testified, "I believe ultimately this museum…will enshrine the radical feminist movement that stands against the pro-life movement, the pro-family movement, and the pro– traditional marriage movement." Nancy Johnson, who left Congress in 2007, says that she sees "genuine harm" in "breaking everything down into gender identity or racial identity." Women's and men's experiences should be presented together, she says.
Good idea, women's museum advocates counter, except that often the second sex is simply forgotten. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society, offered the example of Frances Perkins, Franklin D. Roosevelt's secretary of labor and the first female presidential cabinet member. Perkins accepted the job on the condition that FDR promise to develop Social Security, the landmark program that he signed into law in 1935. Having witnessed the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire—which killed 146 garment workers, most of them girls and young women—she'd become a passionate, even zealous, progressive. "The fact she was a woman was in some ways incidental to what she accomplished," Mirrer says, "but the fact that we don't know about her has everything to do with her being a woman."
While Maloney's initial attempts to gain traction for the museum went nowhere, a nonprofit foundation at first fared better. Karen Staser, an organizational psychology consultant from Alaska who'd raised money to move the suffragists into the Rotunda, had organized a group to push for the museum, and in 1998 Staser launched the National Women's History Museum website, hoping to drum up support for an IRL version. She recruited historians to develop online content, but many grew frustrated at the inability to provide substantive input and withdrew. The site was "amateurish," says University of Maryland professor emerita Sonya Michel, PhD, who briefly advised the NWHM, with too many fluffy entries on female firsts—first astronaut, first doctor—and no more context than a middle schooler could find by Googling.
During the two terms of George W. Bush's administration, Maloney turned her energies to other women's issues: She sponsored bills to reduce the backlog of untested DNA rape kits and to improve access to medical care and education for Afghan women; she lobbied the FDA to allow women over 16 to purchase Plan B contraception. But Maloney never abandoned the museum cause, and in 2009, the time seemed ripe to try again. Barack Obama was in the White House (the first bill he signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act), and Democrats had taken back the House after more than a decade of Republican rule, installing Nancy Pelosi as Speaker, the first woman to hold that position. Maloney drafted a new bill authorizing the federal government to sell land on or near the National Mall for the museum. On October 14, 2009, it passed by a voice vote.
Within a few months, however, South Carolina senator Jim DeMint and Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn put the bill on indefinite hold; they were worried about the expense, they said, even though the NWHM had agreed to pay fair market value for any site that was selected. Besides, DeMint and Coburn claimed, the museum would only duplicate similar institutions—citing the Quilters Hall of Fame and the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, among others. What the two senators didn't reveal was that Concerned Women for America, a group founded by conservative activist Beverly LaHaye, had asked DeMint to kill the museum. According to USA Today, the organization, dedicated to putting biblical principles into public policy, feared that a women's museum would exclude women who were pro-life from the historical record.
Maloney tacked again. She is, it must be noted, relentless, and a believer in the power of repetition. Months after our last meeting, I find myself reciting her favorite statistics, which I've memorized like multiplication tables: the number of women who've appeared on stamps (223, versus 920 men); the number memorialized in public outdoor statues (about 500 out of 5,000) or mentioned in textbooks ("one or two percent, maybe"). She is dogged, and she's had to be, to prove that a women's museum, affordable childcare, and breast cancer research aren't niche issues. "Politics is at its best when it's making the impossible happen," she tells me, twice. It's a line I hear her use a third time, at an event to celebrate New York City's new Second Avenue subway—a venture that lesser pols had tried to pull off for almost a century before Maloney helped secure more than $1 billion in federal funds to support it. You keep at it, she says, "even if it isn't easy, even if it isn't quick, and even if it isn't cheap."
She realized she needed a cosponsor for her bill who could signal that the museum wasn't going to be some pro-choice "shrine." Someone like, say, Marsha Blackburn, who once declared herself the "most conservative woman in the House" and spearheaded the passage of the 2003 Partial-Birth Abortion Ban. "That's why," Maloney says, "she was such a great partner." And though Blackburn's against using any federal money for the museum, she doesn't have much patience for conservative naysaying. She signed on, she says, because young women, particularly the less advantaged, need role models to show them a "path they can travel."
In February 2013, the pair introduced a bill to form the American Museum of Women's History Congressional Commission. Next, Maloney appealed to then–House Majority Leader Eric Cantor during an emotional congressional delegation trip to Auschwitz. Marginalized peoples' stories can't be forgotten, she implored. Schedule a vote on my bill!
Ignoring conservative protests, including an op-ed on the website Red State titled "Why Are Republicans Promoting a Left-Wing Feminist Museum?," Cantor got the act to a vote, and it passed the House in May 2014. A month later, Maloney lost her powerful ally, when he lost his primary to Tea Party candidate David Brat, who accused him of being a "compromiser."
Fortunately, on the Senate side, the 2012 election had ushered in five new women, bringing the total to 20—every one of whom backed the measure. After Maine senator Susan Collins, a Republican, and Maryland senator Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat, teamed up to creatively attach the legislation to the National Defense Authorization Act, it passed. President Obama signed the bill into law in December 2014.
The measure stipulated that the eight-member museum commission, selected by the House and Senate leadership, be bipartisan—and, as usual, its work had to be privately funded. Maloney and the NWHM raised more than $800,000, and in May 2015, the AMWH Congressional Commission held its first meeting.
The group chose as its chairperson Jane Abraham, the head of the Susan B. Anthony List, which works to elect pro-life candidates. "I have always felt, and this I apply to everything in life, that it's extraordinarily important to be part of the decision-making," she says. "It's very difficult to criticize on any level if you're not part of the process."
Commission members—who, in addition to Abraham, included Emily Rafferty, former president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Pat Mitchell, former president and CEO of the Paley Center radio and TV museum; and Maria Socorro Pesqueira, president and CEO of the Chicago-based social-service agency Mujeres Latinas en Acción and the sole woman of color—agreed that despite the extreme political differences among them, their recommendations had to be unanimous.
They also took testimony from academics, among them Sonya Michel, who argued that a new museum could feature more challenging fare than the most prominent nod to American women now on display at the Smithsonian: the First Ladies' ball gowns and official White House china. Michel envisions "parallel bands" looping through the museum, illuminating the experiences of women of different ethnicities, classes, and religious backgrounds. What education was available to them? How much power did they have? How did some women use their power to exploit other women? "We can't just depict women as virtuous victims," she says. Nor should the programming merely be "triumphalist." She also told the commission that reproductive freedom should not be ignored: "I said, 'It's part of women's history. Present all sides of it.' "
On November 16, the commission submitted its review to Congress, declaring, "Women's history is American history." It recommended three sites for construction on or near the National Mall; a $180 million capital campaign; and a $20 million operating budget that combines public and private money, with groundbreaking ideally slated for 2023.
In March 2017, Maloney, with 130 cosponsors, introduced her seventh women's museum bill: H.R. 19, a number she specially reserved in honor of the constitutional amendment that gave women the right to vote. The legislation asks Congress to officially approve a national museum dedicated to women's history—a prerequisite to securing federal funds for the Smithsonian to develop its content.
Maloney is well aware that the timing doesn't seem felicitous for her renewed drive. Not only does President Trump have a record of dubious rhetoric on women, but his proposed budget also eliminates the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. But it's never the right moment, Maloney says. Look at the early-twentieth-century suffragists—they didn't wait patiently. "It was during the First World War, and everyone told them, 'You can't work on this. There's a war on.' "
She used her swearing-in ceremony in January to whisper to Speaker Paul Ryan about her bill—once more, she needs Republican leadership to schedule it for a vote. "He said he knew all about [the museum]," she says. (Ryan's office did not respond to my requests for comment.)
She's also reaching out to First Lady Melania Trump and assistant to the president Ivanka Trump: What better way to show how the White House respects and honors women, Maloney says, than to build a museum for them? It could be Trump's "Nixon goes to China" play! (Adds Schroeder, "Maybe if he could put his name on it. Watch—we'll get the Trump Historical Museum for Women.")
While Maloney says it's her job to get the museum built, not to decide what goes in it, when I prod her, she smiles and names some women she'd like to see in its halls: Sybil Ludington, who rode "farther and faster" than Paul Revere to rally troops to fight the British; investigative journalist Nellie Bly; Harriet Tubman; Shirley Chisholm.
I meet Maloney at her office one last time in February 2017. She's dressed up, hair done, in pearls. But she's not quite as animated as usual, not even when conversation turns to the museum. She warns me she's exhausted. The newspapers are spread all over her desk, the headlines grim.
Then she tells me a story. During the Depression, Maloney's grandfather lost all of his family's money, and soon afterward fell ill. On his deathbed, he told the mother of his six children, Maloney's grandmother, to take the trucks—all that was left from the construction company he'd once owned—and the $10,000 from his life insurance and start a coal delivery business.
"She had never worked a day in her life," Maloney says. "She used to tell me she didn't know how to write a check." She tried to follow her husband's advice, but the man she'd hired to help her set up the operation tried to steal it from her, telling the coal suppliers to work through him, not her. Were it not for the local Business and Professional Women's Foundation, which persuaded the suppliers to trust in Maloney's grandmother's vision, she would have lost it all. "The network of women saved her," Maloney says, her voice cracking.
"I don't know what's the matter with me," she continues, teary-eyed. She takes a deep breath: "I'm just so upset. Everything is so terrible." On days like these, Maloney visits the suffragists. A few times now, she's seen people tuck a note between Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, or just behind Lucretia Mott—the marble mass turned Western Wall for many women. The statue once had an inscription at its base, written in gold leaf. But before its brief installation in the Rotunda a century ago, congressmen deemed the words "blasphemous" and ordered them scraped off.
Maloney presses her temples."We're going to put a bill in, okay? Jen?" she calls out to her press secretary. "We're going to put a bill in to get that inscription back on. Have them write it up, okay?" She wishes she could cite it exactly for me, but it's been such a busy day, she can't remember it. A few hours later, the inscription appears in my inbox:
"Woman, first denied a soul, then called mindless, now arisen, declared herself an entity to be reckoned."
This article originally appears in the June 2017 issue of ELLE.