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Over 100 years ago, women in this country began working towards being recognized in the eyes of the law.  They sought the right to vote, the right to own property, the right to fair and equal wages, among other rights.  They fought hard and they won them all.  
Yet in the early 90’s out of over 500 historic sites in Pennsylvania, only a single one of them intentionally featured the women’s historical experience in their permanent displays.  
After almost two hundred years of work by women’s rights activists, we are still recovering from the affects of treating women as less important than men and clearly need to turn a conscious eye towards preserving women’s historical experiences in our preservation efforts.

So how do we do that? What exactly are we preserving? What opposition and challenges might we face? What resources and tools can we use to accomplish this goal? What methods are best for reinterpreting our preservation efforts?

Revisit the history you thought you knew….

In Restoring Women’s History through Historic Preservation, editors Gail Lee Dubrow and Jennifer B. Goodman point out that the first step towards expanding our interpretation of history to include women’s perspectives is to put women’s historical experiences and women’s questions about the past at the core of the preservation framework.  Before we begin even putting together the what the final preservation will “look like”, we need to ask ourselves what the woman’s experience was at the time and what women today will wonder and ask about that experience.  
This should include preserving both the shared experiences between men and women, as well as the gender-defined roles they each played separately.  Neither men nor women lived completely apart and separate from each other and a well-rounded preservation of the past will value both their individual roles, the roles they played together, and the roles they played to influence the other gender’s roles.

A common challenge preservationists may come up in the process of integrating women’s history into their projects is the opinion that reinterpreting our history is “revisionist history”.   What may be most helpful in overcoming this challenge, should you find yourself facing it, is to build public awareness of  the contributions women made as producers, consumers, wives, mothers, healers, nurturers, social and political influences, community organization, moral authorities, etc.  These contributions make up half of our collective history and reinterpreting our historical preservation to include women’s perspectives is not rewriting history, it’s deepening our understanding of it.

 Preservation 
doesn’t need
to add
women into
history,
it only need
show how 
history has 
already 
included them.

Identify and tell your woman’s story….

Since women recorded their experiences, opinions, thoughts, interests, and roles throughout history in a multitude of ways, resources to help build women’s perspectives into our historical preservation literally abound.  Diaries and journals, household receipts and account books, organization records from social, cultural, and political organizations, correspondences (both public and private), prints and drawings, as well as manuscripts are all good beginning points to research the feminine viewpoint for your particular preservation project.  You may be surprised at some of the stories that begin to weave themselves around your preservation project as you learn more about how women functioned within its context.

Thanks to these vast and far-reaching roles that women throughout history played, artifacts that can be used to tell the women’s story you discover include your research is virtually unlimited.

Clothing, postcards collections, period prints and photos, newspaper articles, jewelry and hair adornments, costumes, textiles, home and domestic artifacts, portraiture, period books, magazines, recipes, medical instruments, tools related to women-defined occupations, childbearing and child rearing artifacts such as toys, period advertisement about women, furniture and decorative art, political papers and campaign advertisements.  All of which can be used in a variety of settings such as inside the period home, factory, social hall, church, town center, civic organization, etc.

Your site’s period and subject matter will also be a source of inspiration for how to tell women’s stories in your preservation.  But don’t limit yourself to just focusing on those things traditionally associated with the women of your preservation’s story. Turning to objects not typically associated with women (large power machinery, guns, military uniforms) can create a powerful commentary on the gender and value judgments that society of that time held.

Preserve extraordinary history with ordinary people….

Preservationists looking to include women’s history need also be careful that they are not falling into the easy habit of focusing only on well-known, high-profile, or prominent women in society.  Their stories are easy to tell, but the common, “ordinary” experience of the many should not be overshadowed by the more noticeable experience of the few.  Not only will the public more easily relate to the experience of “every day” women, these are the very experiences that most shaped the stories our preservation efforts seek to tell.

Notable female figures
in history play an
important role when we
preserve our stories.


William Penn is a notable historic figure to most Pennsylvanians (and many non-Pennsylvanians), but do you know who Sue, little Sue, Mary Lofty, and Abigail Pemberton were?  If you have been to visit Pennsbury Manor (reconstruction of William Penn’s summer home located north of Philadelphia) recently, you probably do.

They are the women of Penn’s household. Sue was his enslaved African American woman, little Sue was her daughter, Mary Lofty was Penn’s housekeeper, and Abigail was her assistant.  In the 1990’s, these women’s historical experience were built into the preservation at Pennsbury Manor in order to provide visitors with a more in-depth look into William Penn’s life.

Adding these ordinary women into the site’s preservation not only sheds light on the lives of the women, children, and servants who once lived there, it also allows visitors to explore the issues of class, race, and gender in the context of William Penn’s ideals and philosophy.  Were these women “unimportant” to history?  To William Penn?

So do the lesser known
women who’s ordinary
lives built an extraordinary
history for our culture. 

The answer, of course, is a resounding “no” – there are many more Sue, Mary Lofty, and Abigails in our history than there are William Penns and building our preservation efforts based solely on the notable, wealthy, powerful, noble, brilliant, famous people throughout our history presents a narrowly focused, imbalanced view of who and how we were.  

In reference to Ghandi, Albert Einstein once said, “Generations to come will scarcely believe that such a one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”  A quite fitting sentiment indeed to express about such an inspirational human being as Ghandi.  But does this sentiment apply any less to Ghandi’s siblings?  His parents? His neighbors?  Perhaps in some ways, it’s even more meaningful to express such a sense of awe, such an an overwhelming esteem, towards a common, ordinary, “every day” person.

In conclusion…. and hopefully in inspiration….

Make no mistake, progress for women in our culture has come a long way, and our preservation of women’s culture has too. Almost everywhere you turn, you see another piece of evidence showing how we’ve brought women’s places in society into an increasing consciousness and growing esteem.  
Let’s approach our future preservation with that very same goal: increasing consciousness and growing esteem of the roles women in our history have played and how we can broaden our preservation efforts to include women’s history.

“When people … took action, then there was a change.” 
-Rosa Parks

Authors

About Danielle Keperling

Danielle Groshong-Keperling has worked full-time in the restoration industry since 2001, but her education in the traditional trades, construction industry, and historical preservation was built from an early age through her Father's work in the traditional trades and her Mother's love of historic architecture. Now, with Jonathan (an artisan craftsman in his own right), her partner in business and life, they work together to help historic building owners restore and preserve their piece of our built history.