President Donald Trump pointed out on Sept. 25 that the Smithsonian Institution’s American History Museum had reopened following a six-month closure in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that people should visit to learn about our country’s history. Prompted by the news, I decided to visit. What I found, however, seemed a long way from history.
On my visit, I toured the exhibit “Creating Icons: How We Remember Woman Suffrage,” designed to coincide with this year’s centennial of the enactment of the 19th Amendment. The show technically opened on March 6, but since the lockdowns closed the American History Museum (and practically everything else in Washington) days later, the reopening marked the first time I, and most other guests, could see the suffrage exhibit.
While the exhibit’s title focuses on the suffrage era, about half of the displays focus on what the museum calls “the continuing struggle for equality.” In this section, the exhibit’s flaws became apparent.
For starters, I noticed this sign listing milestones in the women’s movement:
The first date in the timeline stuck out to me. While the Roe v. Wade case began in lower federal courts in 1970, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in 1973. While few Americans can put dates on more obscure Supreme Court rulings, many Americans, and certainly pro-life activists, know Roe v. Wade — perhaps the most well-known and controversial ruling in modern Court history — dates to 1973.
Tom McClusky, vice president of government affairs for the March for Life, noted another problem with the display: By (accurately) noting that the first March for Life occurred in 1974 while (inaccurately) claiming that the Roe decision came down in 1970, it falsely implies the pro-life movement took four years to respond to the ruling.
While it is good that the world’s largest annual human rights demonstration is recognized on the list, by getting the date wrong on the Roe v. Wade decision the Smithsonian missed the major connection between that event and the first March for Life, which happened exactly one year later.
Roe was decided by seven men to control women through the lie of abortion. In direct response, the March for Life was created by one woman to celebrate women and life and to work to overturn that horrible court decision.
In response to my inquiries, the museum’s staff acknowledged the error and said they would fix the display as soon as feasible. Unfortunately, however, the suffrage exhibit contained flaws beyond a simple inaccuracy.
Vulgar Hats from an Anti-Trump March
The section on “the continuing struggle for equality” contained display cases on two other events: The 1977 Women’s Conference and the 2017 Women’s March. The latter in particular seems a curious choice, given that the Women’s March was founded in direct response to Donald Trump’s election, and many of the marchers took a hostile, anti-Trump tone.
Beyond the political tenor, the exhibit displayed pink “p—y hats” worn by marchers. While the specific hats displayed are less explicit than some of the other paraphernalia worn by marchers, a label next to the display makes clear the hats refer to female genitalia — a fact that might surprise families of small children who visit the museum.
The label next to the display also notes that “there was a backlash against the lighthearted hats when some marchers felt the symbolism excluded transgender women and women of color.”
Silent on Antisemitism
Besides the focus on a recent anti-Trump event, the display of the “p—y hats,” and the references to transgender women and women of color, one thing seemed conspicuously absent from the Women’s March display: The antisemitic views of some of the march’s founders.
In the first meeting that led to the march, several founders allegedly claimed:
Jewish people bore a special collective responsibility as exploiters of black and brown people — and even, according to a close secondhand source, claimed that Jews were proven to have been the leaders of the American slave trade.
The Women’s March failed to denounce antisemitism in its “unity principles” released before the march. Organizers and leaders in the original movement have split off over concerns about the march’s antisemitic associations.
When The New York Times ran a column criticizing the march’s leaders for their relationship with notorious antisemite Louis Farrakhan (among many others), one organizer responded by attacking the columnist as an “apologist for the status quo, racist ideology, and the white nationalist patriarchy.”
Given this checkered, controversial history, I asked the museum’s communications staff a question: The displays specifically referenced the concerns of transgender women and women of color — why didn’t the concerns of the Jewish community warrant a similar mention? The museum offered this statement in response:
The exhibition cases on the 1977 Women’s Conference and the 2017 Women’s March look at how the memory of the women’s suffrage movement, and tensions arising from the moment, can still be seen in the modern women’s movement. The curator discusses how new political symbols are made, how they are reconsidered, and sometimes unmade. The reference to women of color and transgender women was made in this context. We did not address the different, or specific, tensions between march organizers but do refer in a general way to conflicts and tensions ongoing to this day in another label.
That classifies as a response — but what it doesn’t classify as is an answer.
Your Tax Dollars at Work
Getting the date of a well-known court case wrong and promoting some causes but not others while chronicling an anti-Trump march would classify as questionable behavior for any historical museum, no matter its funding source. But the Smithsonian Institution receives taxpayer dollars — quite a lot of them. In the fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30, the Smithsonian’s museums received a total of $1.047 billion.
This controversy also comes three months after the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, a sister museum of the American History Museum, received a harsh (and justifiable) backlash for putting out an infographic that called things like the nuclear family and hard work racist.
While the suffrage exhibit technically opened four months before the infographic’s release, one would have thought that American History Museum staff would have spent some part of the six-month COVID shutdown ensuring that its displays didn’t contain similarly offensive material, or at least listed the right year for the Roe v. Wade ruling.
Particularly given the federal taxpayer dollars at work, the American people deserve better — on both accuracy and content — than the suffrage exhibit.
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