Guess where I was! Right! Washington DC. Our nation’s capital. Our? That “our” is sticking in my craw. From now on I think I will refer to it as “the” nation’s capital.
I have wonderful memories of DC, a beautiful city, dignified and noble, the epitome of what a capital city should be. Looking through the lens of memory, it was still that. I enjoyed my long walks between my hotel (the Loews Madison) and the White House, the National Mall, the museums and Georgetown. The weather was lovely (maybe just a little hot in the afternoon sun), the people seemed open and friendly (lots of beggars shouting a cheery “Good Morning!” cup outstretched) and I felt a general air of bonhomie and the youthful enthusiasm that summer brings even to old arthritic knees (which, thankfully, still does not describe mine).
But the circumstances of this trip provided a focus that became a filter through which I saw DC this time around. I was invited by the AAUW (the American Association of University Women) to participate in a day of specially planned events and another of events opening the 2014 National Conference for College Women Student Leaders (NCCWSL Or “nick-whistle” in AAUW short-speak). All of these activities have a decidedly women focus, so my feminism was the filter on my lens.
And I was really sad, close-to-tears sad, as I realized that this is not my capital. It is the capital of a nation of men.
Our first visit was to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, where we were treated to a docent-led tour of the highlights of the collection. We marveled at the beauty and artistry of canvasses painted by women. Trained by fathers or husbands or lovers, their names are relatively unknown to the art public because they were women. I, an art history major in college, should have been able to recognize at least a few names from my studies … But I didn’t. And here were sculptures by Rodin’s mistress, who now is credited with some of the works that bear his name, and here another canvas whose value dropped ten-fold when it was discovered that it had actually been painted by a woman in the studio of the great master to whom it had been until then attributed.
Ancient history, you might say. Now the world is different. Is it? I started to think about all the ways in which women and our work is devalued by society. Need examples? If you consider the opera singer criticized for her weight, not her voice, it won’t take you long to see other blatant examples. (Don’t get me started on the treatment of Hillary Rodham Clinton.)
Fortunately, while I toured the museum, I put my negative feelings in my purse and really enjoyed the art. You will, too. I encourage you to go just to see expressive and significant work, without a thought to the gender of the person who created it.
AAUW treated us to lunch in the museum, an ample and delicious box lunch. I encourage you to partake of the restaurant there. You will be seated with an incredible view of an absolutely stunning building, which I was told was extremely popular for weddings. Even better, wedding venue fees paid to the museum are tax deductible contributions!
After lunch, we were taken to the Capitol Building for a women’s history tour. I was quite excited for this, and so my disappointment was on an equal, if inverse, scale! First, you’ll be hard pressed to find any references to women (with names) in the building. Paintings, sculpture and the like are so male dominating it is oppressive. Yes, here’s a painting of the first Jewish woman elected to Congress, and some recounted to me that the first woman to serve (though she was not elected) also has a portrait there … But beyond that it starts to become a bit of a stretch.
You probably know that each state of the US maintains two statues in Statuary Hall. Wow! Out of 100 statues there are two of women on display now: Emma Willard and Rosa Parks. It was really hard for me to feel that this represented half of the US population. People who know how I always advocate for gender representation based on the gender distribution of the population represented know that I would advocate 50-50 in this situation (even though, if I am not mistaken, the actual gender distribution is slightly more females than males in the US). I would go so far as to say, each state MUST have one male and one female to represent them.
Don’t tell me that more men have done important things than women. History, in which women’s contributions were circumscribed by discriminatory laws and cultural practices, is predominantly male – but scratch the surface looking for women of distinction, and you’ll find a wealth of history you never saw in school. Can you tell me that there is even one of the 50 US states that cannot find a single woman in the state’s history with a deeds worthy to place her here in “the” nation’s capital? I throw down the challenge if you do!
It was close to laughable the extent to which our guide, purported to be among the best of the U. S. Capitol Historical Society guides, went to find us some women in the building. He was successful: There were a couple of Native American women covering in the bushes of one monumental painting; Martha Washington could be found among the anonymous faces in the women’s gallery at her husband’s inauguration (which by historical fact she didn’t attend).
Pocahontas was featured (!) in a canvas where her brother and husband are more prominent in their disapproval of her conversion to Christianity, a subject that you have to wonder about, hung as it is in a gallery of monumental historic events like battles and the founding of the nation. There was a very prominent, massive sculpture of three busts carved into the top of a huge stone of the three leaders of the women’s suffrage movement. (Guess where this group took its picture!)
The figure on the top of the building, and her plaster model in the visitor’s entrance, is female. Can you believe that that fact left me unmoved? However, there are some women in the large entrance hall – Jeannette Rankin, Helen Keller (as a child), Sojourner Truth, Mother Jones, Sakagawea and Sarah Winnemucca. Don’t know them? Follow the links.
Fortunately, following the Capitol tour, we were escorted to AAUW headquarters for a presentation (and reception) by the head of the AAUW Archives. The focus of the presentation was on the history of the founding of AAUW and the amazing biographies of these women who dared to believe that women with college degrees should be able to participate more fully in society. The hardships they faced (like not being able to attend classes!) did not stop them from earning their degrees, so why would a few cultural or legal restraints stop them from pursuing their dreams?
What a great antidote to an afternoon of feeling pretty forgotten and unappreciated.
The following morning, I was left to my own devices so decided to visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Vague impressions of an exhibition about the First Ladies were floating among other memories of earlier trips to DC so I off I went.
My walk was uneventful, until I got to the White House. Suddenly, official looking hulks in uniforms were directing people away from the sidewalks and the streets. This is more of a strategic maneuver than it sounds as there were hoards of field-tripping teens already barely controlled by their chaperones.
I toyed with the idea of hanging around with the stalwarts hoping to get a glimpse of whoever was going to come in or out of the White House , but the urgency of the guards to move people away from the streets and the sidewalks apparently bears no relation to how soon the event might occur…so I opted to keep going, which required a big round detour wedged in amongst arm-linked teens with only each other on their minds. Milling, roiling crowds, punctuated by massive globs of young people in matching T-shirts, were trying to figure out how to get back to their buses, and individuals like me found themselves trapped in the mob, with no place to go but with it.
Once at the museum, I was delighted to find that it was free, though it would also have been happy to pay. In retrospect, I think I would have been willing to pay quite a bit to be able to see the museum in silence or at least relative quiet. As it was, the din was deafening. It was also like white noise – so treating it as such seemed to achieve the same effect – a quiet personal space in which to enjoy the museum in my own way.
Please don’t think I dislike teenagers. I like them a lot. Their energy is enviable and their quirks are ones I shared and recognized. But, they can also be overwhelming, especially in the numbers I encountered in DC.
My first stop in the museum, was the First Ladies Exhibit. Touted as “one of the most visited and popular exhibits” in the museum, the emphasis was on the dresses. I have very mixed feelings about this particular emphasis. The dresses (mostly inaugural gowns, but others as well) is an interesting and beautiful collection. I like dresses, as much as the next woman, but I spent most of my time looking for, and finding, clues about the responsibilities and causes of the various First Ladies. These are now more numerous than the last time I saw this exhibit, and I hope that is a trend that will continue.
Surprises I found: The presidents’ wives were at the forefront of the women’s rights movement long before it broke out into the national consciousness at Seneca Falls (1848). Many were also fundamentally involved in politics and influenced the political climate of the country in their entertaining as well as advising roles.
I also realized that the role of “official hostess” does not necessarily translate to a “First Gentleman” should we be lucky enough to see women presidents in our lifetimes. Probably, even for a woman president, as it was for a unmarried male, the role of First Lady will be played by another female member of the family. (Can you name the presidents whose First Ladies were not their wives?)
Overheard in the exhibit was this statement of a 12 year-old boy to a female friend or sister of about the same age: “All the presidents were boys. There’s never been a girl president, and I hope there never is.” (I hope she bops him on the head!)
Because I want you to realize that I am a multi-dimensional feminist, I did visit other exhibits in the museum. I had a deadline, so my viewing was sort of piecemeal based on my remaining time before I had to be someplace else. Next, I went to see the Star-Spangled Banner. THE Star-Spangled Banner, not just any old Star-Spangled Banner = American Flag.
In a dimly lit, enormous showcase, the museum has the flag that was flying over Fort McHenry (Baltimore) when Francis Scott Key wrote the stirring “José can you see…” (Oops!) “Oh say can you see …”, the song that would become our national anthem, despite how hard it is to sing. Singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” always makes me choke up a little, and gives me goose bumps, something I regard as the effect of having sung it when I lived in other countries and the longing for home it evoked. Even reading the words behind the enormous, though incomplete flag before me, provoked the same reaction. I was not alone. A teenage boy right at my elbow told his classmates “It gives me chills just to see it. It makes me feel American.”
It’s a textile craft, so you could probably guess it was made by four women. But I bet you didn’t know that the amount paid for this flag was more than most people made in a year. That’s for those you who put price tags on the value of women’s work.
I also spent some time in an exhibit called “Within these walls” which traced the history of a Ipswich, MA frame house, rescued from demolition by the Smithsonian. The house was dismantled on the lot where it stood and housed families for more than 200 years, and reassembled in the museum. Five of the families who lived there over the centuries were profiled in an exhibit that showed documents and memorabilia about the family members and their activities. From the upper middle class builder to immigrant renters, the house has a history worth reminding us of where we come from and in whose steps we walk.
I also had time to visit an exhibition called “American Stories.” Perhaps I missed the point of it, but it was a chronology of popular culture artifacts through our history, each iconic of the changes in our society. I noticed, and stopped to watch, slide shows of the portraits of famous Americans of the time in each section of the exhibit. The most popular personage in the exhibit for most of the kids in the room was Miss Piggy!
With no time for a final exhibit, I decided to walk out onto the National mall and take a picture of the Washington Monument and the Capitol, but the day was not pretty, nor was the Mall, clogged as it was with tents and trailers setting up the “Folklife Festival”. Though disappointed, I also remembered that the National Mall is one of the most poorly maintained green spaces in a prominent landscape you can hope to see. (I really think that’s a shame and an embarrassment.)
The rest of my trip was my antidote to the pessimism resulting from my quest for finding something about the women of this country in official Washington, but because it is not really part of a travel blog, I won’t write about it here.