Finding the Women: Where Are the Women’s History Sites?

Posted on: July 21st, 2014 by Karen Nickless 8 Comments
The Modjeska Simkins House in Columbia, SC, was the site of many meetings between Simkins, Thurgood Marshall and other activists. It was here that Briggs v. Elliott was written, a SC case that became, in 1954, one of the cases grouped in the Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education.  | Credit: Historic Colombia Foundation

The Modjeska Simkins House in Columbia, SC, was the site of many meetings between Simkins, Thurgood Marshall and other activists. It was here that Briggs v. Elliott was written, a SC case that became, in 1954, one of the cases grouped in the Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education. | Credit: Historic Colombia Foundation

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.

Pond Farm, Exterior | Credit: Anthony Veerkamp/National Trust for Historic Preservation

Pond Farm, Exterior. Home of Marguerite Wildenhain, a potter, author and teacher. | Credit: Anthony Veerkamp/National Trust for Historic Preservation

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.

Madam Walker trained nearly 40,000 sales agents and workers serving the United States, Caribbean, and South America (1924 image) | Credit: Courtesy A'Lelia Bundles/Madam Walker Family Archives

Madam Walker trained nearly 40,000 sales agents and workers serving the United States, Caribbean, and South America (1924 image) | Credit: Courtesy A'Lelia Bundles/Madam Walker Family Archives

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.

About Karen Nickless

Karen Nickless is a field officer in the Charleston Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She holds a PhD in History and a Masters Degree in Women’s Studies.

Diversity

8 Responses

  1. Finding the Women: Where Are the Women’s History Sites? - World Heritage Ohio

    July 21, 2014

    […] The Modjeska Simkins House in Columbia, SC, was the site of many meetings between Simkins, Thurgood Marshall and other activists. It was here that Briggs v. Elliott was written, a SC case that became, in 1954, one of the cases grouped in the Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board …read more […]

  2. Cathy Torrey

    July 28, 2014

    The Abigail Adams Historical Society in Weymouth, Massachusetts works tirelessly to maintain the home in which Abigail Smith Adams was born, raised and married from.

  3. James

    July 28, 2014

    Does Andalusia farm qualify for what you seek? (Flannery O’Connor)!

  4. C. Woods

    July 29, 2014

    Albion Fellows Bacon, an American reformer and writer from Evansville, Indiana. She is remembered most for her efforts to improve public housing standards.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albion_Fellows_Bacon

    Albion Flats, prairie style apartments listed on the NRHP, was named for her. They were built in 1911 as part of a trend to reform crowded living conditions for the working class.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albion_Flats

  5. Gretchen Ohmann

    July 29, 2014

    The Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation has her home in Fayetteville, NY preserved and presented as a glimpse into her work in women’s rights, Native American rights, the Underground Railroad, religious freedom, and more: http://www.matildajoslyngage.org/

  6. Cathy Torrey

    July 29, 2014

    The Abigail Adams Historical Society website.

    http://www.abigailadamsbirthplace.com

  7. Jean Perry

    July 29, 2014

    Here in South Jersey we are fortunate to have several women’s history sites within 30 miles of us.

    Paulsdale – the home of Alice Paul, suffragist, in Mt Laurel, NJ

    Whitesbog – the home and research lab of Elizabeth White who developed the blueberry in Whitesbog, NJ

    Clara Barton’s schoolhouse in Bordentown, NJ; Prudence Wright, also lived in Bordentown, an accomplished artist and sculptor and spy for the Revolutionaries in America while she lived in England in the 18th century. I’m not sure if there is any physical evidence of her in B-town.

    Haddonfield, NJ settled and developed by 20 yr old Eluzabeth Haddon

    The Pearl Buck home and foundation in Bucks Co, Pa

    Those are just off the top of my head without too much thinking about it.

    I’m sure there must be information at Campbell Soup Hdqtrs in Camden, NJ about women migrant workers in sevral counties in south Jersey.

  8. Jonita Mullins

    July 29, 2014

    The Alice Robertson Home in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Robertson was the fist woman elected to Congress after women received the vote in 1920. First woman to preside over the House of Representatives. Her home is in serious disrepair, but a preservation group in Muskogee has just purchased it and is now raising funds for its restoration.
    sawokla.wix.com/alice-robertson