A Tribute to American Women

Photo courtesy National Women’s Hall of Fame, Seneca Falls, NY

Whether it is the ability to develop a camera for use in outer space, or the skill to teach people how to prepare a fine meal, the accomplishments of the nine women to be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame this fall are impressive and wide-ranging. On October 6 and 7, 2007, Dr. Judith Pipher, an astronomer who worked on experiments leading to the design of a camera in the Spitzer Space Telescope, and Julia Child (1912-2004), the culinary expert, author and television personality, will join seven other women to become the Hall’s newest inductees.

In addition to Dr. Judith Pipher, this year’s four living honorees include engineer Dr. Eleanor K. Baum, philanthropist and social reformer Swanee Hunt, and environmental advocate Winona LaDuke.

Along with Julia Child, the five historic figures inductees are: Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (1926-2004), advocate for the rights of the terminally ill; Catherine Filene Shouse (1896-1994), founder of Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts; Henrietta Szold (1860-1945), founder of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America; and Martha Coffin Wright (1806-1875), one of the five women who organized the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention

How it came about
The National Women’s Hall of Fame was created in 1969 by men and women who believed that the contributions of American women deserved permanent recognition. Originally hosted by Eisenhower College (now the location of the New York Chiropractic College) in Seneca Falls, the Hall of Fame has been housed in an historic 1870 bank building at 76 Fall Street since 1979. The 5,000 square feet of space is divided between exhibits, archives, and offices. A gift shop and research library is located at 78 Fall Street.

“People are always intrigued by these evening slippers,” says the Hall of Fame’s Acting  Director Chris Moulton, pointing to a pair of Amelia Earhart’s evening shoes, which are ornamented with rhinestones. Earhart, who was inducted into the Hall in 1973, and Dr. Sally Ride, America’s first female astronaut inducted in 1988, are some of the better known of the 217 women inducted since the Hall’s founding.

Others, like Stephanie Kwolek, are less familiar. Kwolek discovered the fiber that led to the development of Kevlar, a bulletproof material five times stronger than steel. That material saves lives every day, points out Moulton.

The biographies and accomplishments of these women are on permanent display panels, divided into broad categories like “art” or “science,” representing the fields in which these individuals made their contributions. Moulton, who has been at the hall for seven years, says many of the women who are inducted while they are living continue to make a contribution to society late into their lives. “It speaks to finding a passion,” says Moulton, giving the example of Ruth Johnson Colvin of Syracuse who founded Literacy Volunteers of America in the 1960s. The 1993-inductee continues to travel throughout the world to promote literacy.

A big move planned
Moulton looks forward to additional education space and being able to display more artifacts when the Hall moves to the 1844 Seneca Knitting Mill on the Cayuga-Seneca portion of the Erie Canal system. The building will provide 36,000 square feet of space and will be particularly appropriate to the Hall of Fame’s subject matter. According to Moulton, early owners of the mill signed the Declaration of Sentiments. Modeled after the Declaration of Independence, this document, which demanded women have the right to vote, was passed at the historic Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls in 1848.

The selection process
How are the women selected to be inducted into the Hall? Moulton explains that to be considered for induction, a woman first must be nominated. Both living and deceased American women are eligible. Quoting from the Hall’s guidelines, “Women are chosen for inclusion on the basis of the change(s) they created that affects the social, economic or cultural aspects of our society; the significant national or global impact and result(s) of change due to their achievement, and the enduring value of their achievement(s) or change(s).”

Anyone can nominate an outstanding American woman using a form available by mail or on the Hall’s website, GreatWomen.org. Nominations are reviewed on a continuing basis. However, a cutoff date is set approximately 12 to 18 months prior to the induction ceremony. Nominations received after this date are considered for the following induction.

Selection falls to a panel of judges made up of “experts in their fields, both male and female,” located across the country, according to Moulton. Names of the nominees are masked to “make it as objective as possible.” Several women already inducted into the Hall serve as judges, and the judges’ identities are revealed at the induction ceremony. Members of the Hall’s board and its three full-time and six part-time staff are not permitted to serve as judges. If unsuccessful on the first nomination, a nominee is rolled over to the next time. “Many people are nominated multiple times before selection,” explains Moulton.

What if someone has a female family member, a colleague, teacher or friend who hasn’t exactly made a contribution of global significance but still deserves to be recognized? For a $100 contribution, special places in the National Women’s Hall of Fame building and on its website have been created to honor women of achievement and significance. This special program, called “Book of Lives & Legacies,” includes a tribute page written about the woman being honored. Over 1,000 women have been recognized in this way.

Not to be confused with …
Only a short distance from the Hall is another Seneca Falls landmark, the Women’s Rights National Historical Park at 136 Fall Street. Moulton admits that visitors sometimes confuse the two even though they are separate entities. “We try to work collaboratively,” explains Moulton, citing projects like Convention Days held each July to commemorate the first Women’s Rights Convention.

The 1848 convention and women’s struggle for equal rights is the main focus of the park, which is part of the federal government’s National Park Service. The National Women’s Hall of Fame is an independent, not-for-profit, educational, membership institution.

by Laurel C. Wemett
Laurel C. Wemett owns a gift shop named Cat’s in the Kitchen and lives in Canandaigua.

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