Reconciling The Femininity Of Preservation With The Masculinity Of History And Heritage



During Women's History Month, we recognize female achievement across centuries and professions, including music. While more than a few designated weeks every March are necessary to reverse the consequences of an historical narrative written largely by men and for men over centuries, it's important to celebrate the progress we've made as we continue to work towards inclusiveness.


In the article, "Women's Hidden Roles in Historic Preservation," Laura Kise offers a wonderful summary of the actions we can take to celebrate all year round:

  • Every one of us can contribute to this enriched history by remaining curious, researching women, including historical women’s stories, quotes and objects in our museums and heritage sites.

  • Hiring women in all roles related to history and preservation, and educating women about other women in history.

  • Women themselves can continue to share their own stories to pass them down to future generations.


As a preservationist, I'm proud that the origin story of my profession is significantly female. The earliest examples in the United States are from Native American women who maintained and preserved their cultural heritage through folklore, storytelling and mediating peace. The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association was the first national historic preservation organization. They saved President Washington's home and continue to own and operate the property today. In 1853, Louisa Bird Cunningham wrote the following words to her daughter Ann that would inspire her to establish the organization:


"If the men of America have seen fit to allow the home of its most respected hero to go to ruin, why can't the women of America band together to save it?"


These female beginnings, inspiring as they may be, were also problematic. While women led the preservation movement, their efforts lauded male history (particularly Caucasian men of European descent) to the exclusion of their own and that of all other minority populations. A casualty of their time, chronicling the female experience was neglected, much less given secondary focus, and those uncollected accounts and artifacts are forever lost.


But women began to express concerns about their representation in the mid-nineteenth century with the Battle of Bunker Hill memorial. Although men and women both fought on the battlefield and women championed this commemorative piece through advocacy and fundraising, only men were acknowledged:

"Half a people made only half a monument," wrote Dr. Harriot Hunt. "The other half, the feminine, made it a whole." It was designed "for John and Peter, not Mary and Deborah. But it will not be always so."

To a significant degree, this early focus permeates the profession today. I see it in my own work. Most of my projects have focused on Caucasian male artists because this is where public and private interests meet opportunity and funding. Unfortunately, as long as preservation professionals and their work depend on grants and benefactors instead of salaries promoting objectivity and diversity, this influence will always be there. As for determining who and what should be preserved and advocated, these decisions should be more democratic. After all, our history is a public trust and should be treated accordingly.


Delving further into the issue of power and affluence, many pioneering female preservationists were from the upper echelons of society. This inadvertently led to preservation being perceived as a "hobby" or "pastime" for the wealthy woman instead of a profession worthy of salary and benefit like their male counterparts in architecture. They weren't considered professionals, but handmaidens. This leisurely stigma in conjunction with its caretaking nature (feminine) has continued to define preservation in such a way that it has never been able to escape from its founding and claim the professional dignity it deserves. Women are still associated with volunteerism (the origins of preservation) and men are associated with career earnings (traditional bread winner role).


Historically devalued by patriarchy and a culture of volunteerism dependent on chance and charity, the obstacles faced by our predecessors remain. Women are still underrepresented as subjects and undercompensated as professionals. This is because preservation work is still essentially funded the same way and by the same people. You'll find some of my thoughts and ideas about how we can restructure and build anew in the recent entry, "Rural America Scholarship Program Supports Music History And Heritage Work On Main Street."


My M.A. thesis at the University of Westminster concerned Europe's aristocratic concert society, its patronage and influence, the emergence of public concerts for the middle class (Bourgeoise) and the elitism associated with opera and classical music that continues to hinder the genre's ability to capture a broader audience today. This research constructed the foundation of my work and professional identity. I want to create accessibility, relevance and excitement for the music of yesteryear so that it can bypass its historical oppressors and live in the world as it should.


Preservation is rooted in feminine virtues. History, in its interpretation and resulting heritage, tends to be masculine. In order for preservation to reach its full potential and offer women an equal share, we need reconciliation. It's about eradicating stigmas and stereotypes, diversifying, replacing qualitative associations with quantifiable ones, and assigning value. In short, establishing preservation as a profession supported by and beholden to the public trust that is mankind and womankind.


Sherry



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© 2021 by Sherry Davis

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