Women's History Museum is the right thing to build

Congress is staggering toward recess. I'm going to go way out on a limb and guess that they're not going to accomplish anything major before they leave. But as long as they're still in town, taking up space, the least they could do is approve the National Women's History Museum bill.

Honestly, I would not be making this plea if everybody was knee-deep in the budget or reforming the tax structure. But they can barely summon the will to open the mail. And the museum bill always has been uncontroversial. It's a great idea; it doesn't cost any money; and virtually everybody in office has already supported some version of it in the past.

The legislation would simply allow a private group, conveniently named National Women's History Museum, to buy an unlovely piece of federal land on Independence Avenue for the site. "We will pay fair market value and pay for construction," said Joan Wages, the president. The bill allows five years to raise the money and break ground. If the group fails, the land would revert back to the government, which would get to keep the purchase price.

The problem, actress Meryl Streep pointed out at a fundraiser for the museum this week, is getting the government to take the money. At the gala, Duane Burnham, former chairman of Abbott Laboratories, announced a donation of $1 million in honor of his four granddaughters. Streep then put up $1 million herself.

"I was a little mad that a man did it first," she later said to me. "I was just jumping on his caboose." She was en route to London to play Margaret Thatcher in a movie and was inspired to make a grand, albeit non-Thatcherian, gesture.


As Streep likes to point out, Washington already has a postal museum, a textile museum, a spy museum and the Newseum. You may be wondering why there is any problem getting congressional support for a women's history museum. Especially since the bill has already passed the House unanimously and come out of its Senate committee with unanimous approval. And since the bill, which is sponsored in the Senate by Susan Collins of Maine, has 23 co-sponsors from both parties. The Senate itself passed a different version of the plan unanimously a few years ago when the museum people were hoping to lease a government building rather than construct a new one.

The answer — and people, how many times have you heard this story? — is that two senators, Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, have put holds on the bill. A hold is one of those quaint Senate traditions that ensures that each individual member of the chamber will have the power to bring all activity to a screeching and permanent halt.

The bill's supporters seem to feel that DeMint, who is now famous as a leader of the new Republican far right, is the chief obstacle to getting the project sprung. He was raised by a single mother who helped support her family by running a dance studio. He also has daughters. Perhaps he just puts holds on things as a matter of habit, like a compulsive twitch, and does not have any actual objection to celebrating the American women's story in the nation's capital. Perhaps he will call up Collins on Monday and tell her it was all a terrible mistake.

Coburn's office said the senator was concerned that taxpayers might be asked to chip in later and also felt that the museum was unnecessary since "it duplicates more than 100 existing entities that have a similar mission."

The office sent me a list of the entities in question. They include the Quilters Hall of Fame in Indiana, the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Texas and the Hulda Klager Lilac Gardens in Washington.

There also were a number of homes of famous women and some fine small collections of exhibits about a particular locality or subject. But, really, Coburn's list pretty much proved the point that this country really needs one great museum that can chart the whole, big amazing story.

Beginning in the late 1960s, the restrictions and prejudices that had hobbled my sex since the beginning of Western civilization began to be questioned, repudiated and overturned. It happened so fast that it was easy to forget all the women who had dreamed and fought for that moment but never lived to see it. And it was easy for the next generation to grow up unaware of what happened.

I lived through what was perhaps the greatest social shift in the history of our culture. You all did, too, unless you're young enough to have been born into a brand-new platform of gender equality that was created, really, just for you. There will never be a time more appropriate to celebrate this great fact.

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