By Lori Osborne. Osborne is the Archivist at the Evanston History Center and Director of the Evanston Women’s History Project. Additionally, she recently joined the board of the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites.
In early December, I had the distinct pleasure of being invited to participate in a workshop held in Washington D.C. to develop recommendations for improving the way our National Park System documents and interprets women’s history at National Parks, National Historic Sites, National Historic Landmarks and the National Register. I went in my capacity as director of the Evanston Women’s History Project (located at the Evanston History Center) and as a board member of the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites.
The workshop was held at the behest of Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and his senior staff, following his call for the National Park Service to do more to tell all Americans’ stories, especially the stories of women. Only 4 % of sites within the park system either are related to significant moments in American women’s history or interpret the women’s history that took place there.
The two-day workshop took place at Sewell-Belmont House, the headquarters of the National Women’s Party. This was a treat, as I love historic houses of all kinds but especially those related to women’s history. Sewell-Belmont House was the home of Alice Paul, who led the way to woman’s suffrage through nonviolent but aggressive action, chaining herself to the gates of the White House, and being imprisoned and force-fed for her efforts. The museum holds the archives and the artifacts of this phase of the movement, which was also great to see.
The workshop itself was truly just that, “work.” For two days participants from all over the U.S. – representing Park Service administration and sites, historians, architects, archaeologists and local historians like myself – listened to panelists, participated in large and small group discussions, and then worked hard to draft and choose key recommendations. Panelists highlighted both best practices and inadequacies. Discussions covered everything from integrating historians, both local and academic, into the Park Service and its interpretive work at its sites – to reaching out with better support to small historic sites and landmarks (like the Dawes House and Willard House here in Evanston). It was an honest, frank and yet positive discussion. Everyone there agreed that with a refocused effort and increased understanding, progress could be made.
The workshop ended with the choosing of nine key recommendations to deliver to Secretary Salazar. We moved to the U.S. Capitol to deliver these at a reception held in the Senate Wing. It was a dramatic moment with close to 100 people attending. Secretary Salazar was gracious and appreciative of our work. He directed his staff to immediately begin to outline how the recommendations could best be implemented. I will continue to be involved in this effort, especially as it relates to local efforts and needs. A final list of the recommendations is being drafted and will be available on the Collaborative’s website in the weeks to come.
In the midst of all this, I managed to sneak away for a minute to visit the statue of Frances Willard in Statuary Hall. If you don’t already know, Evanston resident Frances Willard is best known for her work as President of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, but her social reform work covered everything from advocating for women’s suffrage to prison and labor reforms. She was the first woman to have her statue in the U.S. Capitol, given by the State of Illinois, and is the only one currently in Statuary Hall. It was nice to connect this national moment for women’s history with our local efforts to document and tell Evanston’s women’s history story.