The House of Representatives Has Overwhelmingly Voted to Establish a Smithsonian Women’s History Museum

A similar bill is awaiting approval from the Senate.

Nancy Pelosi donating her gavel to the Smithsonian. Beside her are other objects from the institute's collections representing women's firsts. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute.

The House of Representatives has passed a bill to establish a new Smithsonian museum for women’s history. If completed, it would be the 20th museum in the Smithsonian Institution, which most recently expanded with the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in September 2016.

Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney of New York introduced the bipartisan bill last March, in honor of Women’s History Month, along with representatives Brian Fitzpatrick, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Brenda Lawrence. It now has 293 co-sponsors in total. A companion piece of legislation sponsored by Senator Susan Collins of Maine and Dianne Feinstein of California, is still working its way through the Senate.

“This museum is so important because if we fail to recognize women, we cannot empower them,” Maloney said in a statement. “But women’s stories have been largely excluded from history textbooks.” She pointed out that of the 2,500 national historic landmarks in the US, only five percent of them are devoted to women’s accomplishments. “Seeing role models doing things we all aspire to can change the course of someone’s life. Women and men of all ages deserve to see and be inspired by the remarkable women who helped shape this nation.”

The women who are leading the charge for a Smithsonian Women's Museum. Courtesy American Museum of Women's History Congressional Commission

The congressional leaders who are spearheading the charge for a Smithsonian Women’s History Museum. Courtesy American Museum of Women’s History Congressional Commission.

Tuesday’s vote for the women’s history museum, which passed 374 to 37, is an important step in what has already been a long process. The first time Maloney introduced legislation for the museum was back in 1998. Her most recent effort, in 2017, was never brought to a vote, despite having 257 co-sponsors. But there have been signs of progress in recent years.

In 2014, Congress formed the Women’s History Congressional Commission to evaluate the need for and feasibility of a new national museum dedicated to women’s history. After two years, the commission called on Congress to move forward with the proposed institution, citing a need to showcase women’s contributions to the nation. After Donald Trump took office, the bipartisan group called on the president to support the initiative.

And the Smithsonian has taken note of the calls to recognize women’s roles in US history, establishing in 2018 a $2 million American Women’s History Initiative, the research and documentation project called “Because of Her Story.” Since then, it has raised nearly $10 million for exhibitions and programming about women, hired four curators dedicated to women’s history and 13 paid interns, and published a book, Smithsonian American Women, about collection objects belonging to women.

Under the new legislation, the Smithsonian board of regents will have six months to select a site for the new museum, “with priority given to a site that is on or near the National Mall.” But it will still be years—perhaps a decade or longer—before the museum opens to the public. (Establishing the African American History Museum took nearly 30 years—15 to pass a bill authorizing the museum and another 13 to build it.)

Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) appears on SiriusXM Presents: "Women In Congress." Photo by Larry French/Getty Images for SiriusXM.

Representative Carolyn Maloney appears on SiriusXM Presents: “Women In Congress.” Photo by Larry French/Getty Images for SiriusXM.

If the “Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum Act” passes in the Senate, the next step will be securing funding. The construction costs for the building, which is expected to be around 350,000 square feet, will total $242 million over the next 10 years, according to an estimate from the Congressional Budget Office. Factor in the cost of staffing and exhibitions, and the total cost is pegged at $375 million, expected to be split equally between federal and private funding.

“We look forward to working with Congress and supporters nationwide to illuminate the profound impact women have had on the American story,” read a statement from Smithsonian secretary Lonnie Bunch, who was the founding director of the African American History Museum. (That project ended up costing $540 million.)

The women’s museum might not be the only new addition to the Smithsonian in the works. A museum for Latin American history soon may follow. Following yesterday’s vote, the Friends of the American Latino Museum issued a press release calling for a vote on a bill from Representatives José Serrano, Will Hurd, and Tony Cardenas to establish a museum for Latino history. The proposed legislation has 294 co-sponsors.

“Despite countless contributions to America’s economy, fighting in every one of our wars, and positively impacting every aspect of society, the story of Latinos in the United States has been largely absent from Smithsonian museums and the time to change that is now,” said Danny Vargas, chairman of the Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino’s board, in a statement. “The tremendous support for this legislation in Congress demonstrates just how powerful our community’s stories are in filling the gaps in our history.”

Meanwhile, a bill for opening a National Museum of Asian Pacific American History and Culture, introduced by Congresswoman Grace Meng in July, has 19 co-sponsors.

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