At Large  March 8, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

Smithsonian Announces $55 Million Gift to American Women’s History Museum

Wikimedia Commons

National Mall aerial view


For the past two years, the Smithsonian has been working to gather support from donors on a proposed American Women’s History Museum. Last week, the Smithsonian announced over $55 million dollars in gifts that will help to solidify the museum’s future. Though it has yet to receive Congressional approval, it is a step in the right direction for the future museum’s place on the National Mall’s promenade. And what a way to bring in Women’s History Month than this wonderful announcement!

Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth Cady Staton (seated) and Susan B. Anthony, 1880-1902, Photo by David B. Edmonston

Among the contributors to this overwhelming gift include fashion designer Tory Burch, Pivotal Ventures, Walmart’s Alice L. Walton Foundation, Target Corporation, Bank of America, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. These donors find themselves among a now-growing list of founding donors who have given $1 million or more including Deloitte, AARP, Jane and Spencer Abraham, the Robert and Lynda Altman Family Foundation, Rosario Dawson, Billie Jean King, among others. The funds provided to the museum have, and will continue to support the planning of the museum’s building, program development, and digital content for the museum, which will honor American women and their many and varied accomplishments. 

In a statement, Melinda French Gates said, “The stories we tell about our country’s history so often overlook the contributions of the women in every generation whose efforts and ideas helped make us who we are today.” Gates believes that the future museum will “empower and inspire [the women] who will shape our future."

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Anita Hill testifying in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee during Clarence Thomas's Supreme Court confirmation hearing. October 11, 1991, Photo: R. Michael Jenkins

The idea for this museum all began almost ten years ago, when in December 2014 the Women’s History Congressional Commission was established. Their task was to determine whether or not the nation would benefit from this type of museum honoring women’s history. In 2016, the group spoke to Congress, calling them to establish a museum for women’s history on the National Mall in D.C. A bill was proposed by then-New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney first in 2017, and again in 2020.

In December 2020, Congress finally passed legislation approving the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum, and separately, voting to establish a National Museum of the American Latino. In October of last year, the Smithsonian announced two possible sites on the National Mall for these two new institutions: one directly opposite the National Museum of African American History, and the other on the eastern side of the Tidal Basin. The museum’s timeline is still up in the air, but hopefully this strong influx of gifts will help to push it faster.

Photo: Adam Stoltman, Courtesy Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

Maya Lin working on Civil Rights Memorial, 1989

Since 2020, the museum has worked to create events, both online and in-person, to research, disseminate, and amplify the history of American women. These efforts are exciting and invigorate the public through digital platforms, showing how necessary a brick and mortar museum of American Women’s History truly is. But this new museum is also guided by the Smithsonian’s digital-first mission and focus, and their online content will allow millions of people to access the exhibitions and their materials, all online as well as hopefully one day in person.

So far, the museum has a twenty-five member advisory council, a staff of fourteen employees and a nearly $2 million annual operating budget. Since March 2021, Lisa Sasaki has been leading the charge as Interim Director. Sasaki has been guiding the museum’s collaboration efforts with other museums and educational institutions to expand in all aspects to recognize the diverse perspectives on women’s history. The plan for the physical museum is to draw on the over 150 million objects that already exist within the Smithsonian collection to tell the story of American women and their contributions to history via sciences, politics, sports, arts, music, and more. 

Courtesy Smithsonian

Photo of Lisa Sasaki, Photo by Emmanuel Mones

Sasaki said in a statement on the new funds, “We are so grateful to begin Women’s History Month with the support of such a stellar group of donors who are dedicated to bringing the story of the American woman to light, and together, we will create a museum that celebrates the women who have helped build this country. These donations are pivotal in the realization of this vision.”

Though there are many hurdles for the museum to overcome–picking a site, construction, any further legislation, etc–the website is jam packed with information and virtual events. They also keep a running list of female-focused Smithsonian museum exhibitions, from an orchid show that tells the hidden stories of groundbreaking women, to a women’s history monthly online screening series, there is so much to unpack, discover, and learn. 


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