Against all Odds – the Little Engine that Could (and Did!)

Pivotal moments on the path to creating a Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum

Pivotal moments include, but are not limited to:

  • Under the leadership of Rep. Carolyn Maloney, on December 19, 2014, the passage of H.R. 863 that created a Congressional Commission to study the potential for a national museum honoring women’s history in America. Note: Unlike other national museum studies (the African American, the Latino etc.) that were awarded approximately $3 million of federal dollars each plus in-kind federal support to conduce their studies, the women’s history museum legislation sadly came without any federal funding.
  • In May 2015, the appointment of 8 remarkable and very different women of different political strips (Jane Abraham, Mary Boies, Bridget Bush, Pat Mitchell, Marilyn Musgrave, Maria Pesqueira, Emily Rafferty and Kathy Wills Wright) as Commissioners to a Commission that truly believed that with open minds and open hearts and respect for one another, a Commission report could be presented to Congress with unanimous recommendations about America’s thirst for a women’s history museum as part of the Smithsonian family.
  • The election of Jane Abraham as Chair of the Commission by her Commissioner peers.
  • In July 2015, the Commissioners hired veteran nonprofit consultant and strategist, Wendy Pangburn, to serve as the Commission’s Executive Director.
  • Without any federal funding, Jane Abraham, Kathy Wright and Wendy Pangburn successfully approached the nonprofit, the National Women’s History Museum (NWHM) for seed money in the amount of $750,000 to cover the cash costs of running the Congressional Commission. The Commissioners continue today to be very grateful for this critical funding. No other funds were required due to the generous in-kind contributions of volunteers, vendors and scholars from across the country.
  • The communications skills of Commissioner and national women’s advocate Pat Mitchell were put to task (Pat stayed up all night during the Commissioner’s first meeting) helping to clarify the mission, put pen to paper and thereby locked down a blueprint that would serve as a guideline throughout the project.   Later, Pat’s efforts to get TED women to focus on the Commission’s work was also instrumental to the effort in getting broader exposure.
  • With direction by Commissioner Maria Pesqueira and author and journalist A’Lelia Bundles, the development of an early diversity plan that included advisors, surveys, networking and diversity task forces was put into place.
  • The willingness of volunteers and consultants that were paid pennies on the dollar to lend their professional expertise as their personal contribution to the cause (Mary Kate Cary, Dani Mackey, Irene Schindler, June DeHart, Deanna Sibbald, Marie O’Connor, Ann Burns, Vincent Ricardel, James Kimer, Zak Kidd, the team at AECOM, & Tony Lynch to name a few) were added to the mix. Apologies to those that we might have failed to mention by name.
  • The legal mind and the much needed “let me play devil’s advocate” voice of Commissioner and attorney Mary Boies as the Commission ran up against some legal hurdles and challenges along the way. 
  • The in-kind contributions from so many vendors – office space, printing, web site development, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts delivery services, that never were given enough credit for their invaluable contributions.
  • The incredible staff work of Hilary McGraw in establishing a top-notch network of women’s history scholars from across the country that gave the Commission legitimate intellectual capital along with the support of Molly MacGregor, the founder of National Women’s History Month.
  • The undying tenacious and continual efforts of Senator Susan Collins and Rep. Carolyn Maloney and their staff.
  • The core museum, fundraising, and budgeting expertise of Commissioner and former Metropolitan Museum of Art President, Emily Rafferty, and her “museum 101” counsel to Wendy and the other Commissioners.
  • The wise counsel of Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture’s director Lonnie Bunch on how to “break a little glass and just get the job done”.
  • The day-to-day surveys and back-of-the-house administrative nitty-gritty work of Molly Hall-Harvey.
  • The constant behind the scenes prodding of Kathy Wright and Irene Schindler keeping the cause elevated in front of Leader McConnell and other key legislators throughout the marathon.
  • At a critical moment, in the final writing and production of the report (digital and hard printed copy) the tremendous support of museum consultants at Gallagher & Associations (Gretchen Coss serving as the lead).
  • On November 16, 2016, the official report was presented to the U.S. Congress and the President Barack Obama.
  • The acceptance of a Smithsonian Initiative recommendation as a pathway to a future standalone Smithsonian museum by Smithsonian Secretary Skorton and later the embracement of the Initiative by Secretary Bunch.
  • The very generous first and significant seed money gift to get the Smithsonian Initiative off the ground by Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation.
  • The follow-up significant gifts by Mary Boies and the DeVos family (via Jane) that demonstrated that a women’s museum can be supported by both sides of the political aisle.
  • The establishment of a Smithsonian Women’s History Initiative Advisory board which included Commissioners Mary Boies and Jane Abraham.
  • The kick-off of the Smithsonian’s Initiative, themed Because of Her Story, featured traveling exhibits and online programs dedicated to women’s history.
  • The passage of H.R. 1980 on February 11, 2020 by the U.S. House of Representatives calling for a Smithsonian museum dedicated to women’s history.
  • The full court press by Senators Collins and Feinstein to get the companion bill, S. 959, to the Senate floor to a vote before the end of the 2020 Congressional cycle.
  • The brilliant testimony by Jane Abraham in front of the Senate Rules Committee in November 2020.
  • The leadership of Senator Roy Blunt coming out of the hearings with a pledge of an endorsement from the Senate Rules committee.
  • The amazing and skilled lobbying work by Commissioners and political activists Marilyn Musgrave and Bridget Bush throughout the journey but in particular at the end to find compromise legislative language that conservative political groups and conservative leaders on the Hill could live with in the final hours of consideration of S. 959.
  • The skilled work of Senator Collins and her fantastic staff, Katie Brown and Rowan Bost, to move over/around/under the hurdle of Senator Mike Lee’s stoppage of getting S. 959 to a vote on the floor and instead getting it including in the Omnibus Bill. The bill passed and President Trump signed it into law on December 27, 2020 which included the creation of two Smithsonian museums, one dedicated to the story of Latino Americans, the other to the story of women’s history.
  • And finally, throughout, the endless and continual work of Chairman Jane Abraham, her 7 fellow Commissioners and Executive Director Wendy Pangburn to never lose the faith after submission of the Congressional report but to keep fighting every step of the way until Congress awarded the country with a Smithsonian museum dedicated to women’s history in America.

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