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

Maryland's history, through her eyes

March 20, 2007|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,Sun reporter

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.

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