South Carolina Senate Chamber Portrait of Ann Pamela Cunningham, The “Founding Mother” of Historic Preservation. Photo credit South Carolina Legislature.
Many women and men have contributed so much to the field of historic preservation in America. However, as is too often the case, the role of many women has been hidden in the shadows. Sometimes these roles have been completely ignored or forgotten. Yet, women’s roles are inextricably linked to and undeniably contributed to the summation of successes in the field of American historic preservation. Despite their essential role in preservation, their memories are often not preserved. As noted here:
“Although women have led the historic preservation movement, the history of women has not been adequately preserved.”
-Ellen Perry Berkeley & Matilda McQuaid, p. 159, Architecture: A Place for Women
This blog post is written with the intention of being one small part of the movement to uncover the hidden roles of women in preservation, by shining a bright light on the women in the shadows, especially in honor of Women’s History Month. These women have played and continue to play pivotal roles alongside men in historic preservation. This post also includes relevant resources for interested readers to explore further, as well as tips on brightening the spotlight on women’s roles in history and preservation. After all, as Harriot Hunt stated in her personal narrative (regarding the monument to the battle of bunker hill):
“Half a people made only half a monument: the other half, the feminine, made it whole.”
-Harriot Hunt, p. 163, Glances and Glimpses: Or, Fifty Years Social, Including Twenty Years Professional Life
Early Roots of Historic Preservation: Cultural Diversity and Minority Groups
Beginning our overview of women in preservation by first acknowledging the historic and cultural contributions of non-European groups in America seems most fitting, as many of the women in preservation come from these backgrounds. These groups represent some of the earliest examples of what we could deem historic or cultural preservation in America because they have all played a part in shaping what American culture is today. Their unique stories did not always include preservation of the aspects of the physical built environment that we now typically associate with historic preservation, but their efforts did contribute to preservation of culture. One way these non-European groups maintained their traditions and cultural heritage within a broader American culture was through folklore and story-telling.
These traditions are often attributed most to the elders of the groups, particularly the female elders. Shannon Smith described the legacy of “native storytellers” as Native Americans are well-known for this tradition. These women were the primary means of passing stories on to subsequent generations, to educate and protect their culture and values, as men’s roles (e.g., hunting and fighting) often limited their ability to act as narrators. Jackie Krogmeier also discussed how Native women acted as cultural mediators with the European settlers; although this mediating role was necessary for maintaining peace and in some ways then also protecting their culture, their own voices and perspectives often are not highlighted. Instead, their parts are written in the annals of history mostly through the voices of European men, if noted at all.
Amache Ochinee Prowers was an example of a native woman considered to be a cultural mediator between the diverse cultural groups in what is now the state of Colorado, and this interview by the National Trust for Historic Preservation details the cultural heritage she inadvertently left behind for archaeologists to discover. Ada Deer is a modern-day Native American advocate and scholar, known for her tireless work to preserve Native culture and heritage while fighting for the rights of Native citizens. This Menominee Tribe member from Wisconsin was crucial in the Menominee Restoration Act of 1972, which restored the tribe to federally recognized status. This was just one victory in the fight to maintain Native culture rather than completely assimilate Native people, as the federal government had once intended.
African Americans also played a pivotal role in preserving their own cultural heritage as well as contributing to modern American culture. African American slaves in particular were repressed in every way possible, including being prevented from learning to read and write. However, described how slaves adapted by telling folktales of their cultural heritage. They updated and adapted those tales to their present circumstances, to prevent detection from slave owners who might perceive obvious traditional stories and ties to the African cultural identities as a way to unite slaves and a threat to the power the owners held over their slaves. Another way enslaved African people maintained their cultural heritage to some degree was through food. Christina Regelski discussed how enslaved African cooks brought their heritage into the homes of their masters, heavily influencing what people think of as traditional Southern food today, and we can guess that many of these cooks were female. Sylviane Diouf noted that female slaves often bore the burden of passing their cultural heritage to their descendants simply due to the tendency of slave owners to divide enslaved husbands and wives as another way to maintain power over them, leaving women with their children as the men were sold elsewhere, and even in cases where mothers were separated from their children. As with Native women, many of their voices and stories were lost to history.
Since the abolition of slavery, more African American women have prevailed in preserving their culture and have been able to do so with more resources at their disposal. Mary B. Talbert was one African American woman who specifically focused on preservation of African American heritage. She also contributed to preserving the built environment by saving the home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, after initial efforts by others were unsuccessful. Several other modern African American women are also working hard to champion Black History as an integral part of America’s holistic heritage.
These are just two cultural examples of many minority groups in America, but all have stories to tell about their contribution to preservation. The National Park Service has highlighted general cultural diversity in historic preservation, including the short timeline for recognizing the importance of preserving the cultural heritage of minority groups and including diversity as a preservation issue.
Women have faced unique challenges in many societies, including the Western world. Compounding being female with being a non-European minority in America has added to this plight. These trials have rendered the triumphs of maintained cultural heritage and historical preservation by the women of these groups all the more meaningful.
Timeline of Women in the Formal History of Historic Preservation
Most chronological accounts of the history of historic preservation agree that the earliest recognized formal example of historic preservation – in European-American Culture – was the founding of the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1791. Its founding is credited to Jeremy Belknap, a clergyman and historian. His pioneering act paved the way for other communities and groups, including women, to establish successful means of recording, preserving, and restoring history. However, little is noted about the roles that women may have played in this historical endeavor.
Subsequently, several other organizations for history and preservation were formed, buildings were saved from decay or demolition and even restored, and museums opened. Notably, women were involved in many grassroots efforts. One famous early example was that of the monument to commemorate the Battle of Bunker Hill. Several women were part of a group in the 1820’s that initially championed the creation of a monument, and were at the helm of organized fundraising events for the monument. Sarah Josepha Hale (whose many accolades can be found here) was probably the most famous among them. The aforementioned Harriot Hunt also contributed to and lauded these efforts by her fellow female activists.
However, it was not until perhaps the mid-nineteenth century when Ann Pamela Cunningham – often credited as the American Preservation Movement’s Founding Mother – inspired a preservation movement. Finally, a woman was given specific recognition for preservation. Cunningham was appalled at the state of George Washington’s monumental Mt. Vernon Estate, and in 1853, inspired by her own mother’s concerns, penned an article about it that was published in a Charleston, S.C. newspaper. Even in the 1850s, the estate of the “Father of our Country” was threatened by a combination of neglect and speculators hoping to develop it for profit. Not even the tumultuous time period, including threat of secession and civil war, could squelch Cunningham’s entreaty. Her pleas were answered by like-minded women all over the country, even on opposite sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. The result was the chartering of the Mt. Vernon Ladies’ Association, and America’s first nationwide preservation campaign was underway. After several years the Association was successful in saving and preserving the property. This success-story spurred other preservation movements, and modern-day preservationists esteem Cunningham’s efforts as having set the stage for things that are still done today.
Countless other named and unnamed women from various cultural and ethnographic backgrounds contributed to preservation and general history through the years. But many diminished or even scoffed at the work of these women. For a large part of American history, those women’s twentieth century successors were jokingly referred to as “little old ladies in tennis shoes standing in front of bulldozers.” However, as Elizabeth Byrd Wood – a past editor at the National Trust for Historic Preservation – pointed out, the 1966 enactment of the National Historic Preservation Act created jobs via state historic preservation offices, finally creating formal positions for people to make a recognized career out of preservation. One of those first professional preservationists was Nancy Schamu, who began working for the Maryland Historical Trust in 1969, and who is now also considered a leader of the modern preservation movement. She was interviewed upon her retirement, sharing significant insights into the changes in preservation over the past half-century.
Women in Modern-Day Historic Preservation
The creation of formal government-based preservation jobs marked a significant formalization of the preservation field in this country and made it so that historical female preservationists’ work was not in vain. Women’s roles have continued to evolve from their foremothers’ roles as preservers of culture and activists for the built environment. More and more women have successfully trained and demonstrated their merit in the hands-on work involved in preservation. The National Trust for Historic Preservation spotlighted just a few of those women who are now part of this niche field of skilled craftspeople. Another example of women in preservation is exhibited on countless TV shows such as those featured on the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) network and the Home and Garden Television (HGTV) network, demonstrating how much more mainstream preservation, or at least restoration and renovation, have become to the public via commercialism (for better or for worse depending on one’s opinion). With countless books and internet resources information proliferates more than ever before regarding the pivotal roles of women in history and historic preservation. Restoring Women’s History through Historic Preservation is just one fine example of these written efforts that recognize the feminist imperative to increase female visibility and involvement in history and preservation.
Practical ways to honor and include women in history and preservation
Even with these strides, there is much more work to do to ensure the visibility of women in history and historic preservation. The National Trust for Historic Preservation featured suggestions on “Putting Women Back in History.” Suggestions from this article include:
- Put females in the wider context of history. Rather than relegating them to only domestic roles, focus on their roles in every aspect of history. Women have played less obvious but no-less significant roles in growing crops, mediating with other cultural groups, creating war-time munitions, and working in factories.
- Note how expectations for women varied. This might include defining the contributing roles of slaves, servants, and rich women to the country we live in. Consider the different cultures and times in which they lived.
- Use women’s resources. Anything owned by a woman in history is an artifact of who she was and what she contributed.
- Search for new sources. Do not assume you know or have all of the information; previously uncovered sources of documentation may exist. You never stop learning about someone.
- View women as independent and part of the whole. Women are worth something in their own right, not just in how they support men or children.
- Do not stereotype. Look beyond simple interpretations of their artifacts and contributions, and look at the whole person, the unique individual
- Let the women speak. Use direct quotes and add well documented-stories.
Historic preservation is about more than saving windows in an old house, or repairing a plaster molding; it’s about preserving any and all aspects of the history of a culture, where possible. To do that requires allowing all of the voices and work of all of its contributors to be heard. Everyone of us can contribute to this enriched history by remaining curious, researching women, including historical women’s stories, quotes and objects in our museums and heritage sites, hiring women in all roles related to history and preservation, and educating women about other women in history. Women themselves can continue to share their own stories to pass them down to future generations. As Harriot Hunt basically said, women are the essential half to make the ideal whole.