If a fellow preservationist called you and asked to go on a women’s history tour of your community, what would you say? Would a number of women’s sites come to mind? A few? Only those related to a famous woman? Would you tell her you would get back to her, or say with confidence that there are no women’s history sites in your community?
I guarantee if you answered the latter or could only think of a few that you are wrong. I don’t care if you are a guide at Alcatraz or the Hagley Mill in Delaware or work as a planner in a small town or are a neighborhood activist. Women are there. If you don’t believe me, we can play “stump the blogger.” Just leave a comment naming a “woman free zone” and I will find the women.
But how do you find them? Some are relatively easy, for instance homes of famous women, such as Susan B. Anthony, or places where women left their mark on the workplace, such as the Lowell Mills. These are women-focused sites. But what about the sites that aren’t obvious, but still contain a women’s narrative? Unlike historic architecture, women’s (and other minority) sites can’t be identified by a “windshield survey.” Factories where women worked look the same as factories that employed men. Houses where significant (but not famous) women resided usually look the same as the house next door. Women’s sites are hidden in plain sight, and are most often known by oral history and documentary research.
For instance, everyone who cares about the Civil Rights movement in Columbia, South Carolina, knows the home of Modjeska Monteith Simkins, a prominent civil rights activist, is on Marion Street, and they knew it before it was recognized for its history and became a property of Historic Columbia Foundation. Other sites, such as the Cigar Factory in Charleston are only seen as women’s sites on closer examination. The Cigar Factory was the scene of a significant strike in 1945, but it was only later that historians began to see it as a women’s site. The majority of strikers were African American women and they brought the spiritual “We Will Overcome” to the Civil Rights movement where it became “We Shall Overcome.”
One of National Trust’s core values is Diversity, a value we apply when choosing National Treasures. Our National Treasures should always reflect the past of all Americans so that the total portfolio, although changing, at all times tells the story of the braided narrative of our history. Although all of our current Treasures can be interpreted as women’s sites, the two that are most women-focused are Pond Farm and Villa Lewaro.
Pond Farm, in the Russian River Valley in northern California, was the home of Marguerite Wildenhain, a Bauhaus-trained potter, author and teacher, who is considered one of the most accomplished of 20th-century U.S. ceramicists. A California State Park, Pond Farm is threatened by neglect and lack of funding.
Villa Lewaro in Irvington, New York, is a testament to the entrepreneurship of Madame C. J. Walker, the nation’s first female African American millionaire. Walker created an empire based on hair and beauty products for African American women made from her own formulas. She trained 23,000 sales agents and workers, giving other African American women a chance to succeed.
The Trust is actively searching for other women-focused sites. We have entered into a partnership with the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites (NCWHS) to identify, save, and educate the public about American women’s history through women’s sites. Our collaboration will include evaluating and nominating women’s history sites that are potential National Treasures and National Historic Landmarks and working to raise awareness of the preservation of women’s history sites.
NCWHS has a long track record of identifying women’s sites, publishing guides to women’s sites, and conducting workshops on identifying and interpreting women’s sites. Their expertise joined with the Trust’s will result in more identified women’s sites to become possible National Treasures. As we all know, every site is a woman’s site, but NCWHS and NTHP will work together to “Treasure Hunt” for sites with a strong women’s connection.
Join us! Know of a significant women’s site that is threatened? Just let us know. You could be the one who finds a National Treasure.
Editors Note: This story is a web companion to the Spring 2014 issue of Forum Journal: Imagining a More Inclusive Preservation Program. Read more stories on diversity here.