Almost 175 years ago this July, a small intrepid group gathered in Seneca Falls, N.Y., to begin in earnest the quest for the vote for women. With only one in attendance living to see the fruition of their effort, little did they appreciate just how long it would take to achieve what seemed so right.
It took them near 70 years for success with almost another century since. On Wednesday, Women’s Equality Day, it will be the 95th anniversary of the day that voting by women officially became law, as the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Still, we know little about their stories and the many other contributions of women to making this nation what it is.
Chartered as the National Women’s History Museum, there is a group determined to tell those stories. Bowing to their strong advocacy, Congress in December created a commission to study the feasibility of such a museum in Washington, D.C. If deemed feasible, it would be privately funded, as is the commission, contrary to previous commissions for creating museums on the National Mall. Nor would it necessarily be built on that last prized site on the mall, demonstrating just one more struggle for women to claim equality.
The National Women’s History Museum provides the following statistics for why we need such a museum:
▪ Only 1 in 10 figures in modern American history books is a woman.
▪ Less than 8 percent of statues in our national parks depict women.
▪ There is not one museum covering the breadth and scope of women’s history in any capital city in the world.
▪ There are 17,000 museums in the U.S. and not one includes the roles and contributions of women to building our nation.
These are the statistics that fail to tell the human side of more than half the population. Nor is it due to the lack of such stories. Their activities simply were not deemed worthy because of their gender. No American child leaves elementary school without the story of Paul Revere’s 1777 “midnight ride” but few to none have ever heard of 16-year-old Sybil Ludington, who likewise made a night horseback ride (twice as far) to successfully warn of an impending British attack.
In a 1931 exhibition baseball game, 17-year-old Jackie Mitchell struck out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig only to have her contract voided the next day because the sport was “too strenuous for women.” In the D-Day invasion of Normandy, Martha Gellhorn, defying the ban on women reporters, locked herself in a ship’s toilet. Despite her eloquent description of the momentous event, she was arrested upon her return from the battle.
A better-known story is that of Harriet Tubman as an Underground Railroad operative helping escaped slaves. Less known is her leadership of 300 Union troops on a successful Confederacy raid. Her picture is currently under consideration for placement on the $20 bill. More recent news is that the picture of a woman, yet to be decided, will be on the $10 bill.
No doubt it is a fading memory that our own San Joaquin Valley sent the first woman to the California state Senate. The restroom built for Rose Ann Vuich was long dubbed the Rose Room. She also rang a small bell any time the gentlemen of the body needed to be reminded that it was no longer their exclusive province.
These stories and ever so many more will be told in a National Women’s History Museum. They must not continue to be ignored. Their voices must be heard. Their stories must be told. Our stories must be told!
Ruth M. Gadebusch resides in Fresno.