From the Crypt to the Capitol Rotunda

The Creation of NWHM

By Karen Staser

It was April 1995 when I conceived the National Women's History Museum in a White Paper written to give voice to both the empowerment and dismay I felt after 13 years of self-directed research on women's history followed by the surprise of realizing that this history was largely missing from our nation's capital, including the Smithsonian Institution. It was not a choice for me. It was an irresistible calling to galvanize myself and others into taking action; necessary labor that I did not relish. I was afraid and alone, but my research had revealed that I was not the first, nor likely the last, to heed this call.

I wanted to empower people and correct the common myths we all absorbed from childhood forward. Some of my motivation was provided by my late father-in-law, Major General Bruce Staser, who assured me that women's only place was in the home. He challenged me early on, in 1982, to name five women of historical note that were not famous because of their husbands. I couldn't do it back then, even armed with a graduate degree. I didn't yet realize that almost nowhere in the world would I have been exposed to such knowledge via mainstream education and culture.  

From my research I learned that women’s traditional labor and contributions had been rendered invisible or devalued. Additionally, although women had made extraordinary contributions in nearly every field of human endeavor, this, too, was missing from the mainstream historical record. We draw power from our "stories." It was clear to me that we needed the stories of both men and women if we were to build a better future.

Furthermore, I discovered that efforts to restore or add this history to mainstream culture had failed repeatedly each generation from as early as 1405 when French-Italian intellectual Christine de Pisan wrote The Book of the City of Ladies. Through my education and experience as an organizational psychologist, I understood that to impact and remain part of mainstream culture, women's history had to become part of its basic building blocks such as national museums, monuments, and common history books. Also, the potential of the Internet was exploding and I understood the power of being able to share this knowledge, relatively easily, inexpensively and immediately, with the entire world.

I arrived in Washington, DC, in 1994 after my husband, Jeff, was hired by Senator Ted Stevens, soon to assume Chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee as the most senior ranking Republican member. Because women’s invisibility was still such a norm, it took an entire year before I noticed that women were “missing." There was a First Ladies exhibit at the Smithsonian and a painting of Native American women cowering in fear before armed soldiers in the Rotunda, but little else honoring women's accomplishments.

As I explored DC, I learned the Smithsonian had ongoing plans for both a Native American and an African American culture museum. I thought there also must surely be plans underway for women’s history. I planned to find that group and offer my services as a volunteer, but, to my surprise, no such endeavor existed. 
After conducting research on how museums such as the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture began, I made the decision to work towards the creation of the National Women's History Museum myself. This required a clear charter, a board of directors, and documents to be filed in order to be incorporated as a nonprofit. 

My 1995 white paper was the concise justification I used to garner support on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, and it morphed into the mission statement of the newly incorporated NWHM.  

Senator Ted Stevens was an early supporter and, in connection with NWHM’s first project (the fourth effort since 1920 to restore the Women’s Suffrage Statue to the US Capitol Rotunda), Ted surprised us all at a press conference by knowing lyrics to the Suffrage songs! He explained that as a child he had attended Suffrage rallies with his grandmother. He felt that our work was important enough for him to personally seek the support of his counterpart in the House, Speaker Newt Gingrich, because the project literally required an Act of Congress. It still took over two years to overcome objections in the House. 

I decided to build popular momentum for our museum concept around that Suffrage Statue because it had once stood in the heart of the Capitol, the heart of Washington, DC, arguably the heart of the nation. Looking for such symbols leads to the story of how I recruited our first Board. It started with a rotunda guard whom I asked for directions to the nearest restroom and exit because I was walking to the next site on my research list, the Sewell-Belmont House. Alice Paul had lived there while organizing the historic Suffrage Movement and rallies leading up to the narrow passage of the 19th Amendment. The guard sent me downstairs to the “Crypt,” at that time a "hodge-podge" type area where Congress had originally intended to bury George Washington.  

There, shoved aside in an insignificant location, stood a sculpture of three women from the early 1900’s. There was no identifying information on the artwork, only an unprofessionally framed wall sign that merely read, “The Portrait Monument.” Giving the impression of possibly a work still in progress, I thought, "At least that's a start."

After leaving the Capitol and upon entering the Sewell-Belmont House, I was astonished to see a large poster depicting this same work of art. Interns working there on behalf of the National 75th Anniversary Celebration of Women's Suffrage told me all about this historic monument and its shameful treatment.

The monument commemorated 72 years of legislative work by suffragists to pass the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women (52% of the population) the right to vote. It was installed in the Capitol Rotunda in 1920 in an historic ceremony attended by more than five thousand people. The very next day, on orders of Congress, the monument's gold leaf inscription was scraped off before being moved into a storage room in the Crypt. Since then, two major attempts to restore it to a place of honor in the Rotunda had failed. Therefore, in honor of the 75th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, that was the main goal of this new group.

The interns told me that Joan Meacham, residing in Phoenix, Arizona, was the co-chair of this initiative and I arranged to meet her the next time she was in DC. After we met, I agreed to help her with her project and she signed on to help with the museum.

Unfortunately, Congress once again blocked the third effort to restore the monument to the rotunda despite widespread citizen support. At that point I decided there could be no better example of women's history being literally "buried," and that the NWHM would take this mission on as its first project. To give a more descriptive title for the artwork, we began referring to it as the Women's Suffrage Statue.

Next in my journey to recruit the first Board, a neighbor suggested I contact Ann Stone, who lived in our neighborhood and was politically prominent in women's issues. I asked Ann to join the Board and I, as President, Joan Meacham as Vice-president and Ann Stone as Secretary and Treasurer completed the 501(c)3 process necessary to certify the NWHM as a nonprofit organization in 1996.
Joan Wages, a former flight attendant and Democratic lobbyist for the Flight Attendant's Union, read about our Women's Suffrage Statue Campaign in the newspaper. She contacted me and offered to help. Later she was voted onto the Board, partially to offset Ann Stone's Republican credentials.

The fifth Board Member I recruited in 1997 was Patricia Ghiglino who became our Treasurer. She was the CEO of Professional Restoration, the firm that won the Congressional bid to physically relocate the Women's Suffrage Statue from the Crypt to the rotunda.

On Mother's Day 1997, after 77 years, during which three failed attempts were made by other national groups, the NWHM succeeded in returning the Women's Suffrage Statue honoring Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony to the US Capitol Rotunda followed by a magnificent historic ceremony in June.

These leaders—daughters, mothers, intellectuals, revolutionaries—led the greatest bloodless revolution in history. Their decades of work enfranchised more citizens than had the American Revolution or the Civil War. Poignantly, the unfinished portion rising from the base of the monument represents all the unnamed women and men who had labored with them for women's suffrage and all those who would carry on their work in the future to create a more just and peaceful world.

As NWHM moved forward during the start-up years from 1995 through the end of 2000, I carried the bulk of organizational responsibility alone as the only full-time person, without compensation. During those years, the  NWHM launched the website (one of the first "cyber-museums"), a newsletter named A Different Point of View, the national Women Making History Awards, built relationships with Congress and other leaders, led a national fund raising campaign, oversaw and paid for the reinstatement of the Women's Suffrage Statue to the US Capitol Rotunda as well as an historic rededication ceremony, established and gained widespread bi-partisan support for an Honorary Congressional Council, established a Scholar's Council, an Advisory Council of National Leaders, Museum Councils in NYC, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and New Jersey, testified before Congress, and spoke at national events, among many other activities. It required great personal sacrifice which I willingly gave in order to ensure the sustainability of NWHM. 

My husband was appointed by President Clinton to head an agency in Alaska and had relocated there 18 months prior to my departure from DC in late 2000. The Museum could then afford staff and enjoyed dedicated leadership, so I felt that I had brought the Museum to a sustainable point. I decided I didn't want to continue to raise our two daughters without their father, to maintain two residences, or to compromise my marriage any longer. Joining my husband in Alaska necessitated the difficult decision of resigning from the NWHM. Later, at the Museum's request, I served as Board Member from 2006 through 2011. 

From 1982 forward, I poured my heart and soul into women's history and an organization that will ensure women's voices and experiences would be permanently woven into mainstream culture. Today, the NWHM continues to serve as an important catalyst for human progress worldwide.  

What an incredible journey!