11/24/2014 03:10 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Making the Case for a National Women's History Museum


American history, as it's told today (and has been since the start) is ripe with stories about our forefathers and the many great men who built and shaped this nation. Without question, those men and their stories certainly deserve to be told. They were, in fact, great men to whom we owe very much. But, as a young girl sitting through history classes, I often wondered where were the women during all of that time? It was as though I was learning men's history. Where was women's history?

Women have always made up at least half of our population. Today, it's more than half, but if you look at the 500+ year history since Columbus first set foot on our shores, it would appear that the women were largely absent. In fact, for all intents and purposes, they were practically invisible.

Yes, we learned about Pocahontas, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony and a few others, but let's face it, very few others.

We never learned about Hedy Lamarr -- who is remembered as one of the most accomplished actresses in Hollywood, often referred to as the most beautiful woman in the world. Few know she also invented a radio frequency hopping technology that is used by the military to this day. In fact, it's the same technology that enables the use of your cell phones. So much for beauty and brains being mutually exclusive!

We didn't learn about Mary Elizabeth Bowser, a former slave who agreed to infiltrate the Confederacy by working as a servant in the household of Jefferson Davis during the Civil War. Bowser was assumed to be illiterate, but was in fact educated and possessed a photographic memory. As a black woman, she was treated as though she was practically invisible and was therefore able to listen to conversations between Confederate officials, read sensitive documents, and share all the information she had gathered with the Union Army.

And there's Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper who co-invented the first computer language -- COBAL, and Alice Evans, who determined that unpasteurized dairy products led to disease. Despite being repeatedly dismissed because she was a woman, she persevered and eventually convinced public health officials to mandate that all US dairy products be pasteurized.

So, why does it matter? Quite simply, the story is incomplete. The American History we learned as children and which children are being taught in classrooms throughout the country today doesn't tell the entire story. By omitting women's history, we're omitting half of the story and this has critical implications on our society.

Myra Sadker was a pioneer in researching the impact of gender in the classroom and I think she summed it up perfectly when she said -- "Each time a girl opens a book and reads a womanless history, she learns she is worth less."

When girls don't see themselves in textbooks they learn that to be female is to be invisible. Is it really any wonder that so many women are trying to learn how to "lean in?" If we had grown up knowing about the remarkable women who contributed so much to building this nation, we'd already BE in!

When girls learn about accomplished women in history, they become more aware of the possibilities in their own lives. For boys, it's important to see accomplished women in history so they are aware that women were also important in shaping our nation and that their female classmates have value and opinions worth hearing.

Clearly, teaching young boys and girls about women's history, showing them examples of high achieving women, and encouraging them to pursue their dreams regardless of gender is critical.

Today, there are countless initiatives underway by corporations, non-profits and government agencies to encourage young women to pursue studies and careers in STEM. Millions of dollars are being invested and a tremendous amount of research has been conducted to identify why young women aren't pursuing careers in science, math, engineering or technology. One of the findings that comes up time and time again is the lack of role models. The fact is there have been many, many accomplished women in these fields, but unless we share their stories, the potential to inspire young women, will be lost. Just last week, NWHM honored former NASA mathematician, Katherine Johnson at our annual gala. Now 96-years-old, Katherine began work as a research mathematician at the Langley Research Center, the agency that preceded NASA in 1953. She specialized in calculating the trajectories for space shots which determined the timing for launches including Alan Shephard's Mercury mission and the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. In 1962, NASA used a computer to determine John Glenn's orbit around Earth. Not as confident in the computer as they were in Katherine, NASA officials called in Johnson to verify the numbers.

The bottom line is that educating Americans about the accomplishments and contributions women have made to shape this nation will enable both genders to see that gender is not a factor in deciding what you can and can't pursue in life.

To that end, NWHM is on a mission to educate, inspire, empower and shape the future by integrating women's distinctive history into the national narrative. One of our primary objectives is to build a world-class national women's history museum at the National Mall that will serve to educate all Americans about the critical and indispensable role women have played in our history. We've been at this for nearly 20 years.

It's been a frustrating process, but we are closer than ever to making the museum a reality. Because Congress oversees what can be built on or near the Mall, we have been petitioning the House and the Senate with various bills since 1999. The bills have passed in either the House or Senate, but never both in the same Congress. Today, we are very close to passage of legislation that would form a bipartisan congressional commission to produce a feasible plan for the museum. Most importantly, the plan would include the commission's recommendations for the location of a national women's history museum. This is not unprecedented. The African American Museum of History and Culture and the American Latino Museum also went through a similar process. The key difference is that this commission would be 100% privately funded - making it the first privately funded congressional commission for a national museum. In other words, this commission won't cost taxpayers a dime.

On May 7th of this year, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of our legislation -- 383 to 33. It bears noting that 90 percent of the men in the house voted in support!

The legislation now sits in the Senate where it has strong bipartisan support -- including all 20 female senators. The process from bill to law is a bit more complicated than Schoolhouse Rock would have you believe. Limited debate time on the Senate floor requires that most bills pass by unanimous consent. Even though we have the support of 98 percent of the Senators, two have been able to hold it up. The clock is ticking on this session of Congress, but we are hopeful that our many supporters in the Senate will find a way to pass this legislation before the end of the year.