UPDATED: May 7, 2014 4:56 p.m.
WASHINGTON — Citing history textbooks, national parks and landmarks that mostly leave women out, lawmakers on Wednesday revived a long-stalled effort to create a National Women’s History Museum in the nation’s capital.
The Republican-controlled House voted 383-33 to create a bipartisan commission to study the feasibility of a museum on or near the National Mall and recommend whether it should be part of the Smithsonian. The vote came just before Mother’s Day, which several lawmakers noted. A similar measure is pending in the Senate.
Congress has allowed previous legislation calling for a women’s museum to die at least twice since 2005. The new bill would follow a process that was used for African-American and Latino-American museum proposals. The measure prohibits any federal funding for the museum’s creation in order to draw more Republican support.
Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, who have championed the effort, said the contributions of women have been mostly left out of museums, statues and national landmarks. Not enough is taught about women’s history, they said, including details about how women gained the right to vote less than 100 years ago.
“It is a story that everyone should know, how the process of the suffragists and their work that carried them from Seneca Falls, New York, to Nashville where you finally saw the ratification of the 19th Amendment,” Blackburn said. “These suffragists, they were conservative women who led this fight for women’s equality.”
A women’s museum foundation in Alexandria, Virginia, has raised about $14 million and estimates it would cost about $400 million to build. An advisory board for the museum includes women ranging from Jenna Bush to Gloria Steinem.
In a survey of today’s history textbooks, only one in 10 people in the texts are women, said Joan Wages, the president and CEO of the museum group. In national parks, less than 8 percent of the statues are women. Of more than 200 statues in the U.S. Capitol, only 15 women leaders are depicted.
“Women have essentially been left out of the telling of our nation’s history,” Wages said.
Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota spoke against the museum bill. She said the museum concept “will enshrine the radical feminist movement” and that there are no assurances it won’t become “an ideological shrine to abortion.” She urged lawmakers to vote against it and in favor of families and “traditional marriage.” No other lawmakers spoke against it.
For decades, women’s history was banished to the Capitol basement. A statue of suffragists commissioned in 1920 originally included the inscription “Women, first denied a soul, then called mindless, now arisen, declared herself an entity to be reckoned.” But an all-male Congress in the 1920s had the letters scraped off and sent the statue to the basement. In 1997, the statue depicting Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott was moved upstairs to the rotunda.
Women now represent more than half the U.S. population and are a key voting bloc. Maloney, who has worked on the museum effort for years, said she doesn’t know why anyone in Congress would vote against it.
Washington already has museums about the media, spy agencies, the postal service and other topics.
“Surely there’s room for women as well,” she said, noting women led national movements for vaccinations, better schools, health care and more. “It’s my hope and dream that by 2020, which is the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote, we will have a museum on the mall.”
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