Planned heritage center to give voice to state's women and tell their stories

The Baltimore Sun

Over her 64 years of life, Mervin Savoy has heard both familiar and unfamiliar tales of history, from George Washington's military triumphs to the struggles of her native people, the Piscataway Conoy tribe on Maryland's Western Shore.

What she hasn't heard, at least not to her satisfaction, are the twists and turns of history as told by women. Whether in war, politics, business - the events of the day as told in newspapers and books - too often women seemed left out of the story lines. And so, paraphrasing a famous work by Virginia Woolf, she says Maryland women deserve a room - or rooms - of their own.

"Very seldom do you hear of women's accolades. This is long overdue," said Savoy, of Indian Head, who is the elected chairwoman of the Piscataway Conoy Confederacy and Subtribes, which is seeking federal recognition.

That shared sense has drawn her and a number of other prominent women together in a unique project: establishing the nation's first heritage center and museum devoted to the social, economic and cultural contributions of women from a single state. They have formed a nonprofit organization, begun a fundraising campaign and are scouting building sites.

As the planners see it, the Maryland Women's Heritage Center will present sung and unsung heroines, from pioneering environmental author Rachel Carson and civil rights leader Lillie M. Carroll Jackson to Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah, the Jewish Zionist women's service organization. It will also reflect traditional realms of women's work, including routine chores such as washing the marble steps of their Baltimore rowhouses.

"We have been the glue and the thread which have held the patchwork together, the community volunteers, schoolteachers and nurses," Jill Moss Greenberg, the project's executive director, said. "This reframes the paradigm. We are seeing this as a template for other states to adapt."

The center will join other cultural identity institutions of social history, such as the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, and the Jewish Museum of Maryland, which is housed in an old synagogue in Baltimore.

James Early, who directs cultural heritage policy at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, said a state-based women's center fits into a growing field, which he described as "vibrant, evolving, cultural democracy."

"The old status quo of male dominance is gone when women become an index to democracy and citizenship," he said. "The sector of women, their creativity and power, cuts across all other sectors and groups, and they have been the linchpin of nurturing the family."

Organizers expect to announce a site for the center this spring, either a newly built or a renovated structure, likely to be in Baltimore or Annapolis. With an estimated cost of $8 million, the heritage center will take up about 20,000 square feet, modest compared to the striking Lewis Museum on East Pratt Street.

The region has a handful of museums that house and honor women's achievements, such as the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington and the U.S. Army Women's Museum in Fort Lee, Va. In addition, the Women's Museum in Dallas and an aviation museum in Cleveland, the International Women's Air and Space Museum, also help represent women nationwide. But a freestanding structure to present the lives of women from a single state would be a first.

Like the Lewis museum, which shines a harsh light on slavery, the idea is to look at the past anew, beyond the traditional telling of history, which emphasizes military and political events, with white men as the main actors. Center founders say they plan novel exhibits, materials and lessons few learn in school.

A dream long held by a circle that includes Greenberg and Linda A. Shevitz, longtime advocates for women's causes, the center project is inching closer to reality.

The two started long ago collecting materials on Maryland women for classroom use in every state school and library. And they have gained allies. In this week's Maryland Women's Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Annapolis, Judge Catherine Curran O'Malley and Del. Tawanna P. Gaines both spoke in favor of a heritage center.

As a way to raise funds for the project, a media campaign titled "Women of Wonder" is now airing radio and television spots around the state. It highlights some of the Maryland women who have made contributions to history and would be featured prominently in the museum.

Maryland has a lot of material to work with, organizers say, with more than its share of women who have made a mark. The future for history makers seems bright, too, with two native Baltimoreans serving prominent roles in Washington: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the most senior woman in the U.S. Senate.

"In this small geographic area, we manage to have a little bit of everything," Greenberg said.

Hadassah founder Szold's social work in educating masses of Baltimore immigrants a century ago, for example, reached far beyond the state's borders. She will be honored this year when she is inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, N.Y.

Clara Barton, the famed Civil War nurse who founded the American Red Cross, lived in Glen Echo on the banks of the Potomac. Mary Pickersgill was a widowed seamstress in Fells Point when the commander of Fort McHenry came to her in 1814 and asked her to make the largest battle flag the advancing British navy had ever seen. Her all-female shop hand-stitched and produced the star-spangled banner.

Other notable Marylanders are Jackson, the outspoken Baltimore NAACP president and freedom fighter; Belva A. Lockwood, a lawyer who was the first woman to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court; Carson, author of 1962's Silent Spring, which jolted the nation into an environmental awakening; and Mary Katharine Goddard, a printer who published a copy of the Declaration of Independence with all signatures, organizers said.

Former first lady Frances Hughes Glendening, a center board member, said Maryland was unusually fertile ground for women's talents back in the Colonial period.

For example, she said, Margaret Brent of St. Mary's County was an early woman suffragette, a lawyer and landowner.

She "went before the Assembly in 1648 to petition for her right to vote as a landowner and as the executor for Gov. Leonard Calvert," said Glendening, who teaches a college class on women and politics. "She started something, set a tone that should be continued. It seems only fitting we should have a heritage center to show women's place in the social, political and economic order."

Center archives would cover life stories of Mennonite craftswomen in Western Maryland and waterwomen of the Eastern Shore. The center also plans to train Morgan State University students to take oral histories of women from diverse walks of life.

Greenberg, founder of the Maryland Women's History Project in 1980, said the center concept evolved from that early group and gained momentum over the years, drawing scholarly, bipartisan and public support. Once she and colleagues decided they needed a place to consolidate everything they had acquired and learned, they took steps to start a nonprofit a few years ago.

Funding will largely come from private donors, she said, such as Hagerstown resident Peter E. Perini Sr., who made a $1,000 gift in honor of his wife. Organizers declined to specify how much has been raised so far.

Christine M. Moulton, the National Women's Hall of Fame acting director, said Maryland is "paving the future for all" through this center.

"There are still many untold stories of greatness to be discovered," Moulton said. "The National Women's Hall of Fame applauds the efforts of those embracing such endeavors."

Mark Shaffer, a lawyer who is working pro bono on the site selection, said he believes the most important piece of the center's concept is empowerment and leadership training for girls and young women.

Kendel Ehrlich, another former first lady, also serves on the board. Maryland has a record of electing more female officials than most states, Ehrlich said. The time has come, she said, for women's contributions to be collected in a central space.

"We need to put that in a place where we can preserve it, particularly for young women, for inspiration," she said.

Kirstie Durr, a spokeswoman for the media campaign, said it features participants such as Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and Brenda Frese, the University of Maryland basketball coach, each giving vignettes of one woman's lifework.

"This gives a sampling of why we need a women's center," Durr said. "I've got a daughter, and nobody's telling their stories. Nobody's heard about these women. We'd like to make people yearn for more."

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