Women March, the immersive New-York Historical exhibition about 200 years of women’s activism and organizing, demonstrates that collective action begins when just one person confronts injustice, and then another joins her, and then another. The exhibition, which visitors will be able to visit when the New-York Historical Society reopens on Sept. 11, features a digital interactive on individual activists’ lives, representing a non-exhaustive portrait of the many instrumental figures in women’s activism who sparked change through their leadership and example.
The interactive itself was the product of intergenerational and collective curation. High school interns in New-York Historical’s Teen Leaders program worked with curators from the N-YHS Center for Women’s History to choose individuals, conduct research, and write these biographies. The women they chose range from more familiar faces, like Sojourner Truth and Shirley Chisholm, to less-studied individuals, like the Rollin sisters and Emma Tenayuca. They also advised the professional graphic media designers at Unified Field Interactive Design Studio who created the display. All Teen Programs take place in the Tech Commons @ New-York Historical, a state-of-the-art digital media lab where teens conduct research and create creative digital projects to share their scholarship.
After the exhibition opened last March, we asked the teen leaders to reflect on the process of working on the interactive. What did it mean to them, as budding historians and activists, to learn about these women and recover their stories? How did they choose the individuals to study, and how did the experience change how they viewed women’s history and public history? As the museum prepares to reopen and welcome visitors back into the Joyce B. Cowin Gallery, their words remind us of how the women featured inspired their contemporaries to act, and how we can draw on their legacies today.
The teen leaders shared that working on Women March deepened their understanding of historical women’s movements. Many of these young historians, who attend a diverse pool of public and private high schools in New York City, shared that these women’s stories were largely overlooked in their curriculum, although some found the similarities between doing history for exhibitions and researching it for scholarship surprisingly similar. Sage Lattman learned about the diversity of women’s collective action, as “Working on Women March also taught me that there has always been more than one voice in every feminist movement.” Sabrina Barton similarly told us that working on the exhibit “helped me understand the significance of ‘bottom up history.’” She continued, “These women were incredibly important on their own, but if we step back and look at them together, at the tapestry of history that their stories are, we can see a much clearer, more comprehensive view of what it actually means (and has meant) to be an American woman.”
Working on the exhibition also deepened teen leaders’ understanding of the research method itself, and empowered them to view themselves as museum professionals. Mayanka Dhingra shared, “Prior to this experience, I always wondered whether or not my work was relevant, if it carried meaning in the real world. Knowing that people visiting the museum would engage with these stories made me feel, more than ever, that my work had the power to make someone walk away with a new perspective after having learned something they may not have considered before.” Jillian Louie reflected similarly, telling us that “being treated as an equal professional with valued and weighted opinions gave me a sense of belonging.” Kaylynn Chen wrote about the collaborative process of creating the exhibition, facing “roadblocks” like “decomposing documents” and the difficulty of tracing unreliable sources. All off this work had an incredible payoff, however: “In the moment I first saw my interactive, I was filled with pride that I was a part of the force that helped create this interactive. This must be how the women who protested felt: a small molecule propagating a wave.”
The experience also shaped the teen leaders’ understanding of the role of museums and public history can play in shaping our understanding of society. Before the teen leaders program, Sumaya Bouhbal “felt as if museums are snobbish institutions meant to serve and represent the highly privileged minority of the world.” As she put it, “Too often, children open their American history textbooks or go to a museum for a school trip and find themselves lost between pages and artifacts that purposefully exclude them.” But working on this project “beared witness to the progressive, inclusive future” of museums where “poor people, people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, those of religious minorities, and other oppressed groups have their histories told, recorded, and most importantly, celebrated.”
Many of the teen leaders looked to these historical women as role models. Working on the interactive “meant the world” to Denizcan Ozdemir, “especially during the present political climate.” The internship allowed him “to critically engage with the stories of remarkable women…and emulate their successes in the fight for equality in my communities.” Axis Familant shared that this “deeply touching experience” gave them a sense that they were “personally meeting each of these women and getting to receive their advice and stories first hand.”
But the teen leaders also learned to take lessons from their subjects with a grain of salt informed by historical nuance. Talia Fader Idelson found that “In discovering and telling their stories, I realized that the women we studied and oftentimes idolized also had flaws…I had to look at my women’s lives in the context of America’s history, while still remaining critical of prejudices some of them had.”
Many of the teen leaders found the experience to be empowering, and shaped their vision for how they might work for a more equitable future. Arielle Moreau shared that the project “gave me a window into the past and a possible future.” Similarly, Astrid Weinberg wrote, “Every lesson that the women whom I researched taught me can be applied to today’s society, underscoring the importance of sharing their stories.” She continued, “history” can be a “powerful tool to change exclusionary and problematic behaviors when [it] is taught and shared from the bottom-up. Only when we learn from the experiences of people who faced everyday problems with great courage and we recognize ourselves in the identities of said individuals are we able to begin to understand how their work should shape the future.” Marissa Rivera shared that “Walking through the completed exhibit made me truly thankful to all the women who came before me and paved the way so that I can have the rights and liberties that I do today,” especially the right to vote. This lesson, that collective action is a story of ongoing engagement of democracy, is one of the main takeaways of Women March, and all of us at the Center for Women’s History are gratified that our curatorial partners in the Teen Leaders program will carry this message forward.
Written by Anna Danziger Halperin, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History