Building Connections: Recommendations for Centering Women’s History at the National Park Service
During the summer of 2022, as the intern for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Where Women Made History program and the Government Relations department, I evaluated the work of the National Park Service (NPS) related to understanding and preserving sites of women’s history. My research focused on the current conditions of the preservation of women’s history—namely site designations, context statements. theme studies, grant applications, and advocacy—to produce a set of recommendations for the NPS to effectively center the history of all women. Below I touch on my research's key findings and preview some of my recommendations.
In 1974, Congress authorized the Clara Barton National Historic Site, the first unit of the National Park System primarily associated with women’s history. Since then, several initiatives, theme studies, and related work towards researching and preserving sites of women’s history have been conducted by NPS.
In 2005, the NPS published Exploring a Common Past: Researching and Interpreting Women's History for Historic Sites to discuss the existing gap in women’s historical documentation. However, it was not until the Women’s History Initiative in 2012, a collaboration between the NPS and the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites (NCWHS), that specific goals were developed and presented to then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to document and tell women’s stories in the parks and programs of the NPS. Through the initiative’s December 2012 workshop Telling the Whole Story: Women and the Making of the United States, the NPS and NCWHS outlined eight goals:
- Address the gap in National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmark programs focused on women’s history through the Historic Preservation Fund
- Increase the focus on women’s history in NPS units
- Develop an Interpretive Framework to include the diverse range of American stories
- Develop a federal marker program that reflects these stories
- Identify specific barriers that have previously prevented communities from telling women’s history
- Update NPS documentation to include its layered history
- Update the NPS web resources to reflect women’s history research
- Hold a White House Women’s Heritage conference to disseminate women’s history research to the American public.
The NPS addressed some of these goals in the following years, including the nomination of nine National Historic Landmarks (NHL) and thirteen associated parks that highlight women’s history, as well as the promotion of women’s history on the NPS web resources.
More recently, relevant work by the NPS has included the Travel Where Women Made History project, an update to the 1998 Places Where Women Made History: Featuring Massachusetts and New York travel itinerary. This highlights specific stories using StoryMaps that tell the important histories of women. In addition, the project engages park visitors with a travel plan of women’s heritage sites, engages educators with lesson plans and teaching material, and makes the intersections of women’s history clear with subthemes such as Migration and Immigration, Engaging the Environment, and others.
In 2020, the Women in Parks Innovation and Impact Grant was introduced with the National Park Foundation to celebrate the centennial of the 19th amendment. The project funded work at 23 sites related to women’s history, a women’s history fellowship , and continuing fellowship work for the America 250th anniversary.
Though there has been progress in the research, documentation, and preservation of women’s history sites, there is still significant work to be done to center the narratives of all women’s history. Through the resources of the National Park Service and its partners, including the National Trust, this work can help address the existing gap in women’s history preservation.
Today, 76 National Park Service units, including the 19 different NPS naming designations, are listed as being explicitly associated with women’s history. This represents 18 percent of the total 423 NPS units to date. I found that most of the units related to women's history are National Historical Parks and National Historic Sites, each representing 22 units. In addition, most of these women’s history sites are located in New York, represented by 11 units.
National Historic Landmarks do not have a transparent system to indicate the significance of “women’s history.” An estimate of NHLs significant for women’s history was determined through a review of the NHL database. While reviewing each NHL, I used identifiers such as key figures in women’s history, key events in women’s history, mention of the role of women at the site, and mention of relevant intersectional themes already used by the NPS studies.
Using these parameters, I determined that approximately 101, or 3.8 percent, of the total 2,620 National Historic Landmarks were clearly related to women’s history. This percentage has remained consistent since previous research on the gap in women’s history site preservation, such as Page Putnam Miller’s Reclaiming the Past in 1992 and the National Historic Landmarks Women’s History Initiative Progress Report in 2013.
Though women represent over 50 percent of the population, the percentages of their representation in NPS units and NHLs have remained consistent . Dedicating funding by the NPS and potentially outside partner organizations towards the amendment of existing listings to include their complete narrative of women’s history and new nominations of sites related to women’s history would address the gap.
National Historic Landmarks are often identified through theme studies. They are an effective way of identifying and nominating properties because they provide a comparative analysis of properties associated with a specific area of American history. In the early 2010s, the NPS developed the Telling All American’s Stories Heritage and History Initiative, which includes several theme studies that create potential intersectionality with women’s history.
I found that sites relevant to women’s history existed within the Civil Rights in America, American Latino Heritage, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and LGBTQ America theme studies. Though many of the sites identified related directly to women’s history, there is not yet a specific women-focused theme study. I recommend connecting material across the multiple studies, which would not require new research but needs to be referenced within all relevant theme studies. In addition, a new theme study should be developed that addresses specific and relevant narratives to women’s history.
Grant Applications and Outreach
Funding by the NPS for projects regarding women’s history has been provided by several of the Historic Preservation Fund competitive grant programs. The gap in women’s history site designation is also reflected in the number of women’s history sites receiving grant funding. For example, the Underrepresented Community Grant Program shows that only 3.42 percentage of grantees are associated with women’s history sites. Other grants, such as the African American Civil Rights Grant and the Save America’s Treasures Grant, have a higher number of sites associated with women’s history.
Though several projects regarding women’s history have received funding and successfully completed grant projects, I identified potential barriers and areas for improvement. These include:
- Outreach to potential applicants/grantees for NPS funding
- Technical assistance to potential applicants/grantees who are unprepared to apply for funding and implement grant-funded projects
- Support for NPS sites that NPS grants cannot fund
By addressing these barriers, more sites regarding women’s history can be addressed through grant funding. To both emphasize the work completed at women’s history sites and show potential applicants the type of work that could be achieved through grants, I recommend that more web content be developed to highlight examples of women’s history sites that have successfully received HPF grants. Since NPS sites cannot receive NPS grants, the sites of women’s history would benefit from outreach regarding National Trust and other partner grant programs.
Connecting with the National Impact Agenda
Through the identification of the current circumstances of women’s history in preservation, both the goals determined to re-center women’s history in the past (Women’s History Initiative 2012 Workshop) and the framework set for the future of preservation can be addressed.
Specifically, in reference to the goals set during the December 2012 Telling the Whole Story: Women and the Making of the United States workshop, my current recommendations address five of the original eight goals. Some original goals I found to have been addressed in other ways throughout the past decade.
In addition, the National Impact Agenda also serves as a framework for prioritization. My recommendations address these goals in the following ways:
Goal 1: Growing collaborative networks: By using the work done by the potential partners in women’s history to inform strategies for advocacy and preservation projects.
Goal 2: Creating an inclusive movement: By centering intersectional narratives of women’s history that can be elevated through context statements, nominations, and other work
Goal 3: Using modernized, expanded tools: By highlighting the use of web content, GIS storytelling, and different modes to disseminate information.
Goal 4: Equitable communities: By using preservation to address both the historic and present-day inequity in women’s historic preservation.
Goal 6: An engaged public: By using various forms of storytelling to share information and multiple modes of outreach to engage the community in funding women’s history preservation.
Goal 7: Telling a truer history: By focusing on addressing the gap to center untold women’s history
Though there has been significant progress in the research, documentation, and preservation of women’s history sites, the recommendations found in my full report would further the work that the National Park Service could do, in collaboration with the National Trust, to center the narratives of women’s history.
Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.
Donate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll help preserve places that tell our stories, reflect our culture, and shape our shared American experience.