Telling the Stories of Women Who Transformed our Nation with Holly Hotchner, President and CEO of the National Women’s History Museum
More About Holly Hotchner
Holly has extensive experience creating new and interesting experiences for museum visitors and driving institutional advancement. She also led her own consulting firm working with nonprofits on strategic growth and held positions with The Princess Grace Foundation, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Tate Gallery and the Museum of Modern Art.
Sarah Larson: Tell us how you became interested in museums. How did this whole life story start?
Holly Hotchner: I was, in the early days, a maker of art. I can’t say I was an artist, but I was very interested in making things. And I also had a tremendous fascination with learning about the history of art and history in general. And I was very blessed to have a mother who dragged my sister and myself through every church and cultural artifact, wherever we were, from the time we were very young, and it must have rubbed off on me. I just had a lifelong interest in the stories that are told through architecture and art and objects, and now, in this role, also in written history and other kinds of artifacts that come down through time to tell stories. So I became very interested in messaging through historic objects. My first job was, very fortunately for me, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I can’t think of a better institution to pique your interest and cut your teeth in. The people I worked with were some of the most inspiring people, and they were all pioneers in their field. Everyone I worked with in the field of modern art, which, don’t forget, was a very young field not long ago. It was very interesting to see the influence and power that a very few people had to shape the story of art history as it was happening. At that time, and I think it’s the same for theater and all kinds of arts, there were just a few voices that were very much looked to to establish importance, quality, and some of the other things that people look to when they’re thinking about art culture.
So there were a lot of lessons to be learned. It’s a very intricate field, museums, and, in general, quite small. And once you become a director, most of us know each other, and there are many things to be learned. But I think having the ability to form a team that you believe will have the greatest possible insights and outreach and the widest possible concept of what culture is, is a wonderful thing to have the ability to do once or twice in your lifetime, because the people that you choose are the people who are going to tell the stories.
Sarah Larson: And as we’ve seen especially in recent years, the choice of who gets to tell the story is foundational to our understanding of the story. So that brings us to the mission of the National Women’s History Museum. What is the mission of the National Women’s History Museum?
Holly Hotchner: One of the reasons I took this position, and it’s true of most of the people on our board, too, is we simply could not believe that there isn’t a National Women’s History Museum in this country. There are some very specific historic sites and so forth, but there is no museum for women’s history, which is fairly extraordinary when you think about the probably 2,500 contemporary art museums. It just seemed quite imperative that given that we’re more than half the population that some somebody in some group really thought very seriously about this. The museum is 25 years old, but we’re still a virtual museum. And we’ve been very successful being a virtual museum, which quite an interesting conversation given where the world is today and how everyone now is very accustomed to learning virtually. So that’s something I’d love to explore with you because it’s a whole new epoch for museums. We hope the pandemic will subside, of course, but how to get people to physically come somewhere to have an experience is going to be an interesting journey. Some people will crave that, but creating physical community is an interesting topic right now.
Sarah Larson: We’re almost a year, and probably more than a year, if you look back at the actual roots of the pandemic, into this experience here. When museums across the country first started shutting down, did you just get a flood of outreach from your colleagues saying help, what do we do?
Holly Hotchner: Luckily for us, we’ve been in the virtual realm for 25 years, so we are very accustomed to delivering programs virtually. By that I mean some exhibition tours, biographies, actual physical tours of monuments, various things that we’ve always done virtually. So we didn’t have a learning pause to get up and with it. We already had a pretty robust audience virtually, which tripled last year, understandably. But we did get a huge influx for more programming because so many people were at home, and we’re talking about a very wide range, from parents who were desperate to do something with their kids, to teachers and K through 12 learning, who needed resources to work virtually with classes, to people who just wanted to be engaged and entertained. We tried a lot of different programs, we experimented. And again, luckily we had the platform to do that. We have a small collection, but we’re not a collecting museum right now. It’s a very different story for museums that are completely dependent on admissions to see collections. We were very lucky not to be burdened with a building at this point in time, which really was tough for so many of my colleagues.
Sarah Larson: Were you able to offer any of those colleagues some suggestions on how to pivot, how to adapt, what they could do?
Holly Hotchner: We had some sessions or one-on-ones with colleagues. We joined forces with some colleagues, which was great. We offer our programs to many other organizations, which works well all the way around. We don’t charge for any of our programs, so it’s not a revenue loss or competition or anything like that. I’ve always felt that everyone should collaborate much more than we do in our field of museums.
Sarah Larson: How large is your staff?
Holly Hotchner: We are small, but mighty. I have a full-time staff of 10 people. The name conjures up this huge mighty premise, which we are, and the premise is that we would like to tell the stories of all kinds of women, or people who identify as being a woman, which is an important thing, and have it be inspirational for women and girls, but also men and boys and families. Lots of studies have shown that if there are models, it does encourage kids to think openly about what they can do with their lives. Choose any history museum, and you will probably find that the exhibits really don’t include very many women’s stories in them. And certainly not a lot of diversity. We museum people have not done a very good job, as society has not done a very good job, about embracing diversity. We need to do a lot better. Interestingly, because of our unique virtual status, and because women already is part of gender diversity so it’s in our DNA to try to be diverse, but we’ve also been ethnically and racially and religiously and everything extremely diverse from the day we were founded. But we’re only 25 years old. If you look at institutions that are more than a hundred years old, they carry the nation’s history with them. It’s difficult, you know?
Sarah Larson: As you’re developing your programming and you’re deciding what stories to preserve, how do you ensure an inclusive representation, as we’ve said, of women’s history? And do you think that the appetite in society for that has changed? Are we getting better? Are we looking for more stories? Are we open to the telling of things in a different way?
Holly Hotchner: That’s a great question. Clearly society has changed, and whether it’s because one as a business must put that foot forward or whether it’s actually the DNA of the business, I think it is imperative for every company business, community group, whatever to show that they are at least attempting to work with diversity, equity and inclusion and accessibility. So, we’re at a moment that’s very fortuitous for us, if you wish to look at it that way. For example, March is Women’s History Month. The month itself is significant, but we do this all year long, but the number of requests that we get in March to provide anything to do with women’s history for a huge number of corporations, mostly, to use for their employees, their customers, their people it’s quite extraordinary. There is a sense, certainly this year and last year, that they need to make a better effort at being gender diverse and also all other kinds of diversity.
We have a scholarly advisory council, which is an extraordinary group of people, women mostly, who are experts in different areas of women’s history. The group itself is enormously diverse. We welcome men, but it seems as if mostly women are, at the moment, focused on women’s history, professionally. We made a significant effort to find someone who had spent quite a bit of time already looking at women native American history. For example, that’s quite, it’s very, quite difficult to locate some of these scholars that are not, um, haven’t been given a chance. They haven’t had, uh, avenues to study their fields, so to speak. Uh, we have a wonderful woman who specializes in Muslim American women, for example. So it is an extremely, uh, diverse groups that we made of definite, you know, uh, concerted effort to have represent as many aspects of women’s history. And of course, LBGTQ AI plus et cetera, um, made a very concerted effort to have it be a very wide ranging group. And that group helps us look at the diversity of materials that we’re proposing and presenting. So we have a lot of different eyes on how our presenting history who we’re choosing and so forth.
Sarah Larson: It sounds like one of the challenges of even collecting and telling the stories is to find the people who can help find the stories. I always sort of wonder, no matter how many great stories of Katherine Johnson and “Hidden Figures” we uncover, how many stories we’ve lost and we’ll never get back.
Holly Hotchner: That’s a whole really interesting topic: how do you find the history of people who have not been recorded, which for example, in the African-American community, is a huge issue for a lot of reasons. Susan B. Anthony, we can find out a lot about. That is really a labor of love, how you dig and dig and dig to find information about people who not only aren’t well known, but we don’t even know they existed, almost. I am not a doctoral historian, but it is a fascinating profession. And it’s something that also can be helped by volunteers. One of the aspirational ideas I have for this museum is, once we start to do physical exhibitions, that we will start working all over the United States, initially, and globally later on, to help local communities find their history. Younger generations, especially, don’t necessarily want a chronological history dictated to them or to be told what is important and what is not important. Helping local communities find a way to dig up their history can be something that we can be very involved with, and that would be amazing. We’re opening with a big show on African-American women in the Vanguard, and I have not heard of a single woman in the exhibition. They were totally unknown to me, and I think probably will be extremely unknown to many. It’s just so interesting in the history of activism, if you want to use that word, that African-American women were always in the forefront and they always worked for everyone, not just African-American women. There are incredible stories to be known there, very inclusive, very insistent that everyone be considered, very inclusive of other immigrants. The research that went into this took many, many, many years, and a lot of it is sleuth work. It’s sort of like being a detective, which is very interesting.
Sarah Larson: In the early days of genealogy back before ancestry.com. I literally spent weekends at the local family history library or the corner of the public library going through original records, looking at census information, trying to figure out, which goes back to your point earlier. A lot of this is really heavy lifting and the success often rides on the people who really do, as you said, have that passion for that and can bring that to your projects.
Holly Hotchner: It’s still quite astounding, I could even say appalling, to me that parts of our country are still against inclusion even historically. One of the women, an extraordinary scholar, who’s on our advisory committee just came out with a book; her name is Martha Jones. She has just written a book, which represents years and years of work called Vanguard, and it’s about how black women broke barriers and a very many untold stories, and that book has just been banned in the state of Louisiana, which is just almost impossible to believe in this day and age. It’s just almost unbelievable. So the idea that everyone is open to learning and wants inclusive history and so on, we can’t assume that. We come under a lot of scrutiny and now with social media, we get feedback constantly from people. Well, why are you doing that and not that? And what you mean LBGT? Everyone has their own idea of what we should be doing. And when we made a very clear statement that we were non-binary in our approach to women, we lost a lot of followers. You do have to take a stance as a museum or as any institution. You do have to have a point of view, and I have a very distinct point of view, so while I’m running the show, we’re going to take on some very difficult topics that government museums, for example, probably can’t touch. So I do think it’s an interesting, um, very interesting field, very interesting point that we’re in in this country and kind of amazing in certain ways.
Sarah Larson: We’re living through history in a lot of ways. Which brings me back to two questions. How are you primarily funded? Do you rely on donations from individuals?
Holly Hotchner: We’re funded privately, so donations from corporations, foundations, individuals. We get some grants from the national endowment, but we’re completely, privately funded. We have an incredible, for a museum especially, grassroots following, which I have not experienced in any of the places I’ve ever worked or been associated with. We have 55,000 charter members that have been with us for 25 years, from all over the country, very, very diverse, from very small gifts to medium-sized gifts, and they are just so passionate about what we’re doing and that there needs to be this museum, and it’s a very, very different kind of group movement, if you will, than some other kind of institution or an art institution. This base of passionate people is quite extraordinary.
Sarah Larson: And if any of our listeners want to become one of those passionate supporters, what’s the best way for them to find out information about that?
Holly Hotchner: Go to our website, www.women’s history.org. If you Google women’s history, we’re the first institution that comes up, so it’s pretty easy to find us. We engage with a lot of fellows and interns, we work with a lot of universities. We use as many voices and people in different capacities we can, and we are going to be growing. We’re going to open with an exhibition or have some exhibitions in 2022, and how do you choose what stories are you going to tell? If you have 8,000 square feet, it’s almost impossible, you have to start somewhere and take a subject that you think has really been neglected, which in this case is African-American women, but of course we’ll do many, many, many other kinds of shows. Getting people to think and to reflect and to be with that story at that very moment is what we’re trying to get at. We want to build a community of people who would like to get together and have a dialogue about what are the challenges for women, which then become challenges for all of society, as we all know, and especially with the pandemic year where 100% of the jobs lost have been for women and that careers have suffered huge setbacks. The issues of childcare, eldercare, everything that women do in addition to many other things has been put into higher relief, and I think people are very hungry to talk about that, to think about that and to celebrate the extraordinary people who have done miracles.
We started a journaling project this last year, Women Writing History, and we invited any woman to submit their journal to us. It could be drawings, photography, it doesn’t have to be written. It doesn’t have to be every day. We have had an overwhelming response and we’ve made the commitment to care for these objects and to have them on our website and to interpret them, et cetera, et cetera. But when you read the variety of stories. We use these words, healthcare workers, frontline workers, but there are so many stories that are just moving beyond belief of what people experienced this last year in very personal terms that they have shared with us. And I think that’s the kind of thing that we can really offer as an institution, because now there will be one place that has a partial record, but really made an effort to put out a wide reach for people who wanted to be involved in this.
Sarah Larson: And then generations from now anthropologists and sociologists will then have the original source material to look back and start drawing some conclusions. It’s interesting that you referenced. Today, I was actually looking through the 2020 Women in the Workplace study from Leanin.org and McKinsey, I think is the consulting firm that helps them. They talked a lot about the last year for women and the job losses and the additional work that has come crashing down on our shoulders as we work from home and help kids study from home and now do the daily vaccine lottery, trying to get vaccines for our parents, who in my case live a thousand miles away. All of these things that have come down on us and the executive summary basically said, American corporations are at an inflection point for the future of the workforce, because one in four women is considering leaving or stepping down their work because we just can’t do it all. Are those stories that you’re collecting, are they on the website right now?
Holly Hotchner: They will be. We fortunately got a wonderful grant from Ppivotal Ventures, which is Melinda Gates’ company, and actually, some of the best writing, this is not a plug for Melinda but she is brilliant and I guess it is in a way, but some of the best statistical writing has been written about by her in this last year and is available online. Groups of people who are analyzing trying to quantify what the impact on women has been and will be. It’s quite extraordinary. Who knows where that will go, as you say. So many, many corporations who have done in general, just as museums have, not great jobs at diversity, at least with women There are 15 female CEOs of Fortune 500 fortune companies. Think about that: 15 out of 500 and we’re in 2021, right? So certainly, moving to the senior ranks has not been something that, even with some progress, has moved very quickly. Let’s look at the 25 years we’ve been trying to get this place up and running. It is very, very hard with women’s issues, women’s history. It’s a very, very hard sell. It’s hard to raise money for women’s history. For all the reasons you can probably imagine, but it does take some visionary women to get involved. The best story about the way our museum started, or an impactful story, I think is, it was founded by some very passionate women, a little handful, who noticed that there were no sculptures of any women in the Capitol of the United States. They did find that there was a sculpture of three suffragettes, which had been commissioned sometime before and immediately put in the basement. It had never even gotten to the floor. So there began this movement to get the sculpture up from the crypt. So there began this extraordinary journey where first they were told, for example, that the floor would not hold this sculpture, which is just hilarious when you think of all the other sculptures of men. So we paid for an engineering study to show that the floor would hold. Then they were told there was no money to bring it up, thing after thing, after thing. And finally it comes upstairs and some unnamed senators, of course all men at that moment, white men actually, said, “You know, the real thing is just, they’re so ugly.'” Luckily there was a retort from a woman nearby who said “Have you looked at Abe Lincoln lately?”
Holly Hotchner: It’s kind of extraordinary, the story, and that sculpture is still is there today, and that began actually a whole movement to have more public sculpture representing women, which I think is sort of complicated. The whole thing about public sculpture and how do you reinterpret history and so on? It’s complicated. The other study that I think everyone should know about is we, with just volunteers and some leadership, did a study in 2013, going through every available history book that’s that’s used in K through 12 education and we actually quantified the number of women who were in any of these books in any state and the way history was taught. It’s an amazing study, it’s on our website, Where Are All The Women. It’s still true today, and it’s just appalling. We just went through the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, and if you asked anyone, “What are the suffragettes? Who were they?: No, no, no, no. very vague. Most people have maybe heard of one person, most people had no idea that women fought for the vote. It’s quite extraordinary.
Sarah Larson: It makes me want to go look at my 14-year-old daughter’s history book to see what’s in it.
Holly Hotchner: We will do another study. We thought we’d wait a decade at least. We have a wonderful program for teachers to help them introduce women’s history into the way they teach, because we can’t change curricula, it’s not our job to do that, but there is a big thirst for ways that women can be introduced in not just social studies, history, English, all over the place. So we offer lesson plans. We actually train teachers; we have a teacher training institute, so there’s a lot going on.
Sarah Larson: Earlier, you had alluded to some of the contemporary projects that the museum is working on. In addition to those, is there anything else you wanted to give a plug to?
Holly Hotchner: We publish five original biographies every month of people who are no longer with us, and their stories are extraordinary. Perhaps you’ve heard of one or two, but mostly they’re “hidden figures.” We’re doing a program this year on the occasion of our 25th anniversary to look at the so-called four waves of feminism, which, if you study gender studies, women’s studies, traditionally, that’s how women’s history has been taught. And we’ll do a whole symposium series during the year of basically the missing waves – huge chunks of history, all kinds of stuff was going on that is not taught. So it’s pretty interesting. We go back to the French revolution as far as women’s activism and just a lot of really engaging stories of amazing people who didn’t, mostly, have a lot of resources and did extraordinary works.
Sarah Larson: How do you communicate with folks in addition to the website, do you do an email newsletter?
Holly Hotchner: We have tons of email newsletters. We have a printed magazine for members at any level and we have a very robust social media presence.
Sarah Larson: So people who are interested in following all of this amazing work can start with the website and then sign up for newsletters and follow on social media?
Holly Hotchner: There’s a cool thing for women’s history month, every day of month, we have something that we, if you’re would like to, that you can look into, or maybe do with a friend or a parent or a kid, if you want to do something with someone and share an experience. We just put up a whole kind of calendar of different things that you can do. Some of them are 10 minutes. It doesn’t have to be a life commitment. Wonderful things that you could learn every day.
Sarah Larson: And that brings us back to sort of the overarching wrap up question. It’s going to sound simplistic, but it gives you an opportunity to sum all of this up. What does women’s history month mean to leaders in the field like yourself?
Holly Hotchner: As I say, we have 12 months of women’s history month. This is what we do all day every day. It’s wonderful to have a month that focuses the general public on women’s history, but we’re committed to this 24/7. So for us, it’s a month crammed with extra, extra requests and people who want access to material, but we’re just hoping that then gets you going for the other 11 months. Because it’s not a one-off kind of pursuit. So it’s a great way to shine public attention on women, but hopefully people will get hooked and come back after the month.
Sarah Larson: As soon as we’re done here, I’m going to go sign up for your newsletter.
Holly Hotchner: We have educators’ newsletters, we have different kinds of information, general stuff, there’s programs for different levels, wonderful programs that you can do with your kids, different ages. We tried a lot of new stuff this year. And we like feedback. So let us know if it works or not.
Sarah Larson: Holly, thank you so much for joining me today. I feel like we’re just getting started and we could keep talking for three hours, but it’s already been a little while, so maybe we’ll leave this one here for now and we’ll follow up with you in the future and see what has come of the next year.
Holly Hotchner: Thank you for the chance to get people inspired. Women are just amazing, obviously, and certainly haven’t gotten enough inclusion in what people know about. It’s true of every aspect of what women do. So, tune in and get inspired. It’s really meant to be an inspiration.
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