The Odd Couple Behind the Push to Build a National Women’s History Museum

Marsha Blackburn seems like an unlikely partner for Carolyn Maloney’s long-standing legislative effort, but she may be just the ally Maloney needs.

National Journal
Lucia Graves
May 6, 2014, 10:33 a.m.

At first blush, it’s comed­ic — New York Demo­crat Car­o­lyn Malo­ney and Ten­ness­ee Re­pub­lic­an Mar­sha Black­burn sel­dom agree on any­thing. Now, fi­nally, the two House mem­bers have found some com­mon ground. Not that it was easy.

Malo­ney’s a staunch gun-safety ad­voc­ate; Black­burn’s pro-NRA. Malo­ney sup­ports Obama­care; Black­burn voted for re­peal. Malo­ney’s pro-abor­tion rights; Black­burn op­poses abor­tion. Malo­ney’s lib­er­al even for New York; Black­burn’s re­peatedly scored 100 per­cent on Amer­ic­an Con­ser­vat­ive Uni­on‘s rat­ings of Con­gress.

But if, as Madeleine Al­bright once said, “There’s a spe­cial place in hell for wo­men that don’t help oth­er wo­men,” Malo­ney and Black­burn won’t be found there. The con­ser­vat­ive and pro­gress­ive lions have come to­geth­er to pro­mote an ef­fort to build a na­tion­al wo­men’s his­tory mu­seum.

The bill, which would au­thor­ize ex­plor­a­tion for a mu­seum site, will come up for a vote be­fore the House on Wed­nes­day.

“Quite frankly I’m amazed that there’s not a ma­jor mu­seum any­where ded­ic­ated to the achieve­ments and con­tri­bu­tions of wo­men,” said Malo­ney, who first pro­posed the pro­ject in the late 1990s and has been fight­ing to get a bill passed ever since. Now she may fi­nally have the ally she needs.

While crit­ics note that dozens of mu­seums de­voted to wo­men’s his­tory already ex­ist, Malo­ney says that’s simply not true. There are mu­seums that hon­or wo­men’s con­tri­bu­tions in spe­cif­ic areas — for ex­ample, in the arts. But there’s no space chron­ic­ling wo­men’s over­all achieve­ments in fields as di­verse as math, sci­ence, and pub­lic policy.

The bill has been gain­ing mo­mentum since the be­gin­ning of the year, pick­ing up 48 co­spon­sors and the sup­port of House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor. Giv­en a midterm-elec­tion year in which both Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans are seek­ing to make in­roads with wo­men voters, the mu­seum pro­ject could find strong sup­port in both cham­bers.

“It shows what free­dom and op­por­tun­ity do for wo­men, and it’s a man­ner in which the ac­com­plish­ment of wo­men can be chron­icled,” Black­burn told Na­tion­al Journ­al. While she’s staunchly an­ti­abor­tion and doesn’t identi­fy as a fem­in­ist “at all,” she says she’s al­ways look­ing for ways to en­cour­age wo­men to seek op­por­tun­ity and fur­ther them­selves. And the aim of her book, Life Equity, she notes, is to help wo­men trans­late their skills to suc­cess in the work­place.

An­oth­er con­ser­vat­ive lead­er, Rep. Ren­ee Ellmers, who’s fa­cing a primary chal­lenge from eco­nom­ic com­ment­at­or Frank Roche, re­cently penned an ed­it­or­i­al prais­ing the ef­fort as well.

Ellmers, like Black­burn, is not someone who’s typ­ic­ally an ally of Malo­ney’s, and that is something she’s de­cidedly proud of. “Wo­men con­trib­ute in this coun­try and they’re con­ser­vat­ive, they’re mod­er­ate, they’re lib­er­al, and they’re all shapes and sizes,” Malo­ney told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “This is a mu­seum for all wo­men and it’s im­port­ant that all voices are part of cre­at­ing it and will be part of see­ing it through.”

The al­li­ance is also, of course, stra­tegic. An­ti­abor­tion groups have voiced con­cern that the mu­seum could serve as a ral­ly­ing point for abor­tion groups, and the in­volve­ment of a con­ser­vat­ive with Black­burn’s an­ti­abor­tion bon­afides helps as­suage that fear.

Cur­rent es­tim­ates for the cost of build­ing the mu­seum range from $300 mil­lion to $500 mil­lion, in ad­di­tion to $1 mil­lion to sup­port the ex­plor­at­ory com­mis­sion that Malo­ney’s bill would es­tab­lish. While the pro­ject would be fin­anced by private funds, it still needs con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al to be built on fed­er­al land.

If it finds a home on the Na­tion­al Mall, as Malo­ney is hop­ing, it would be one of the few mu­seums there that doesn’t rely on any tax­pay­er money. “We’re used to wear­ing high heels and walk­ing back­wards and mul­ti­task­ing all the time,” Malo­ney quipped. “So what’s new that there’s a more dif­fi­cult stand­ard in the cre­ation of a wo­men’s mu­seum?”

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