Performing Gender Asymmetry: Material Rhetoric and Representation at the National Museum of American History

Apr 25, 2019

Published in Articles | Issue 2

Shersta Chabot, Arizona State University

October 2019


PDF Version


Sometimes I think the only real division into two is between people who divide everything into two, and those who don’t.
— Gloria Steinem

So I am caught in a historical nightmare in which it’s 1970 and many people, activists, writers, academics, students, are asking loudly, “Where are the women?”
— Louise Bernikow

The National Museum of American History (NMAH) in Washington, D.C. is a maze of gender asymmetry. For those who understand museums to be deeply entangled within systems of cultural and political power in the United States, this asymmetry is expressed as a continuation of those systems. Gender inequality in the U.S. has been well documented over the years and is considered by scholars from a range of disciplines to be one of the most fundamental organizing principles, along with race, upon and through which such systems arise.[i] In the museum, however, archaeologist Marie Louise Stig Sorensen has argued that gender gains a materiality and “substance, becomes tangible and has real effect upon people’s lives” (Sorensen 14). This is due to the inherent rhetoricity of the museum and the museum exhibit, or the degree to which the museum and museum exhibit themselves wield influence over the production of meaning. As museum scholar Sharon Macdonald has observed, “[a]ny museum or exhibition is, in effect, a statement of position. It is a theory: a suggested way of seeing the world. And, like any theory, it contains certain assumptions, speaks to some matters and ignores others, and is intimately bound up with — and capable of affecting — broader social and cultural relations” (14).

The public nature of national and historical museums, in particular, imbues them with a power of suggestion that exceeds most other cultural institutions: who or what is included (and excluded), the focus and scope of the exhibits, how objects are arranged and displayed, the tone and content of images, text, and other media – all of these elements become enmeshed in a cultural and political power struggle over public voice, public presence, and public representation. Museums, as all memory places, are inherently and powerfully rhetorical: as Carole Blair, Greg Dickinson, and Brian L. Ott argue in their anthology Places of Public Memory, such places command attention and consideration due to their partiality, intractable presence, and situatedness within an assemblage of other powerful techne.[ii]

Blair’s work, in particular, suggests a more meaningful approach to the study of memory places lies via a consideration of not only the meaning produced, but the way they behave: she asserts that “we must ask not just what a text [or other rhetorical object] means but, more generally, what it does; and we must not understand what it does as adhering strictly to what it was supposed to do” (23).

However, where Blair is still applying a rhetorical “reading” approach to physical objects as though they are another kind of text, I argue that considering the object or artifact in terms of its own materiality results in a more richly textured understanding of the relationships in which it is engaged. This is an approach in line with the tenets of cultural rhetorics, particularly those of story and relations (Powell et al). Using a cultural rhetorics approach requires attending to both meaning-making systems and the practices of which those systems are composed (Powell et al). To separate one from the other would be to lose sight of their inseparability, in the same way that to study a culture without examining its people and what they create would be impossible.

Recognizing the material rhetoricity of an object, exhibit, or museum – asking what it actually does – requires attending to matters of presence and consequence, of story and relations. If, as Blair argues, rhetoric is material, then understanding that rhetoricity requires attending to the interaction of an embodied human consciousness with the environment around it. While the fields of visual rhetorics and material rhetorics have made great strides in recent years, studying the materiality of images and the rhetoricity of the material world, attending to rhetoric’s materiality asks us to go a step farther, to recognize that as embodied beings, we read space and objects with not just our eyes or minds, but with our entire bodies, subconsciously collecting information about the outside world in relation to the position, energy, size, and “feel” of the things we encounter.

This embodied engagement is part of what makes memory places including the NMAH so compelling. Memory spaces are inherently material, requiring us to walk through them, look at them, read and think and use our other senses to understand them. Each of these acts is embodied and carried out in relation to the physical entity or space with which we are engaged. This suggests that an image, text panel, or museum artifact is not only a visual or textual element, but a sensory object, measured and reacted to by the entire body as well as the mind. What rhetorical studies has tended to leave out in the past is this deep engagement between the physical body and its physical environment, and by extension a more inclusive understanding of the ways in which rhetorical presence and consequence are prerequisites to full humanity. As philosopher Hannah Arendt has suggested, to be fully human one must occupy the public sphere.[iii] If this is true, it then follows that the assumptions and values that materialize in an embodied study of national history exhibits both contribute to and are symptomatic of the material, political and cultural conditions of American life.

If Arendt is right, and the occupation of public space is a requisite for full humanity in American culture and politics, then it is past time for the careful and critical scrutiny of the NMAH, an institution that advertises itself as the repository and exhibitor of the histories of an entire nation and its peoples. In the availability, arrangement and presentation of the material traces of a national past – in the exhibits of the NMAH – gender is made material, performing asymmetry in ways that profoundly influence the myriad publics which grace the museum’s halls each year. To better understand this relationship between performance and influence, in 2015 and early 2016 I conducted a close investigation of the National Museum of American History (NMAH), paying particular attention to the performance of gender as constituted by the museum’s material and practical configurations. Following Carol Blair’s notion of the materiality of rhetoric,[iv]I sought to engage each exhibit as a productive entity, as a “partisan, meaningful, consequential” entity (Blair 18), attending to the presence and consequence of gender – and the story and relations of the culture that produces it – to better understand the meaning and narratives each assemblage constructs as well as the consequentiality of that production.

To engage the museum as a productive entity, it is necessary to approach it selectively. While it is true that every element within or related to a museum performs one or more identifiable functions within the whole, for the sake of specificity in this article I have chosen to focus on particular elements within three key museum exhibits (American Enterprise, America on the Move, and The First Ladies) that behave as synecdochical producers of meaning within the whole. My goal was to engage with these exhibits on an embodied level, to sense and record the presence and consequence of women in our national history museum. I then use this engagement as a starting place to examine meaning production through the lens of gender. Gender is particularly productive lens due to the way that gender functions as a fundamental category of American society, circumscribing and limiting meaning production in many ways. It is an embodied category, one made visible through the material traces of things that have, themselves, been gendered. As I discovered, the meanings produced within the NMAH performed an unexpected gender asymmetry that both reified binary gender narratives as well as resisted them. By describing this performance, my goal is to illustrate how a deeper exploration that draws upon embodied perception and material engagement can make visible more of the intricate process of meaning production in memory spaces.

State of the Union’s Past

The National Museum of American History and its exhibits are deeply entangled within complex webs of cultural, political, economic, and other systems of power. Housing over three million artifacts, most of which are not on display, the National Museum of American History (NMAH) is the largest repository of historical objects in the United States. Construction of the museum began in the late 1950s and opened to the public in January 1964. Originally known as the Museum of History and Technology, the massive 750,000 square foot building was designed by renowned architects McKim, Mead and White and cost $36 million to complete (in 1950s currency). The sixth Smithsonian building constructed on the National Mall, the museum was renamed the National Museum of American History in 1980. Its location on the Mall qualifies it as a National Historic Landmark, and the building is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Beginning in 2006, the NMAH underwent a two-year, $85 million renovation of the building’s central areas, adding a grand staircase, a skylight, a new gallery for the Star Spangled Banner exhibit, and renewals of several other exhibits. Currently, the 120,000 square foot west wing is under construction, part of a larger project to update the structure and exhibits (“Mission & History”).

The museum’s exhibits, of which twenty-four were open at the time of my most recent visit in March 2016, comprise a segmented view of United States history organized around specific themes. The largest exhibits focus on the history of transportation (America on the Move), military history (Price of Freedom), and business (American Enterprise). Smaller but no less intriguing exhibits narrate a history of invention (Places of Invention, Lighting a Revolution), the Food Exhibition, The American Presidency and The First Ladies exhibits, money/coinage, and of course, the incomparable Star Spangled Banner in its dark and hushed display. The African American History and Culture Gallery was present, but closed during my study in March 2016, presumably in preparation for the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in September of that same year.

With historical women and their accomplishments largely missing from most national historical sites, popular media, and public memory spaces,[v]

I decided my first task was to locate and engage with representations of women within our national history museum exhibits. One of the first things I realized was that the definition of “woman” in our national historical museums is not only undefined, but unclear. The NMAH deploys the term “woman” as an unexamined category, adopting culturally assumed, hegemonic definitions of “woman” that center white, cis, straight females as the norm.

Given the NMAH’s use of the term, to facilitate my analysis I adopted it as a broad category of not-overtly-male individuals. My engagement with the NMAH exhibits began by asking a series of questions including: Where do women appear in the museum, and in what capacity? Which women appear where in the exhibits? Are women central to the narrative, or marginal? How do representations of women compare to those of men? What gender relationships emerge from the museum narratives? I used these questions to focus my analysis, looking for presence in the material and consequential configurations of gender in selected museum exhibits. Within my larger goal of reading the museum exhibits in an embodied sense, I used gender as a guiding concept through an otherwise overwhelming web of meaning production.

As I attended to presence, story, and relations in the museum space, the gender asymmetries being performed around me began to emerge. Women, as idealized by elite white culture, are everywhere included in the exhibits of the National Museum of American History – indeed, documenting each reference was a far larger task than I anticipated. Some, like the American Enterprise exhibit, managed a relatively diverse presentation of women, men, and diverse ethnicities. At the same time, I found that women are present in the NMAH in ways similar to their status in American culture – contradictory, frequently stereotyped, confined to domestic functions and closely associated with the labor of childrearing or, alternatively, as objects of sexual desire. I also found a pervasive tokenism at work, in which persons of color were vastly outnumbered by white persons, and no discernable references to non-binary genders or LGBTQ individuals whatsoever. In at least one exhibit, Lighting a Revolution, I failed to find a single reference to a historical woman of any kind. Altogether, the representation and performance of gender at the NMAH is far more complex and conflicted than I anticipated, asymmetries built upon dichotomies made strange by their resistance to simple binary opposition.

In what follows, I discuss the presence and consequence, story and relations of materialized gender in three museum exhibits: American Enterprise, America on the Move, and The First Ladies. Out of the twenty-four NMAH exhibits open for viewing in March 2016, these three were among the largest, the most popular (based on observed crowd size), and emphasized elements of gender performativity that were found consistently throughout the NMAH. This degree of visibility is important to museum analysis, as meaning production is often a subtle, even subconscious process. In the last section of the article, I offer an analysis of the relationship between asymmetries of gender constituted by and through the materiality of the museum and the potential consequences such asymmetries have on the material and conceptual conditions of American life.

Performing Asymmetry in American Enterprise

One of the most informative and diverse exhibits in the museum, American Enterprise depicts the history of American business from colonial times through the present day. Even this distinction as the “most” diverse is revealing about the relationships between gender, entrepreneurship, and paid work outside the home; perhaps more so than many of the other exhibits because of the obvious attempts that have been made to achieve a modicum of race and gender inclusivity. I say attempts, because after completing a numerical tally of portions of the exhibit, the numbers show that the central narrative of American Enterprise is focused on the business acumen of elite white cis men. Archaeologist Marie Louise Stig Sorensen has argued that this focus is common in American museums: by and large, “[m]en are used to ‘carry’ the narrative of the past through the exhibition space” (33). Unfortunately, and despite its relative diversity, America’s most authoritative national exhibit on the history of business provides strong support for Sorensen’s assertions.

As I engaged with the exhibit, I was drawn to the long back wall that stretched above my head and the long length of the space, completely covered with a brightly-lit installation of colorful text and image panels highlighting individuals assumedly representative of business success. Laid out in chronological order from left to right, the panels provided a timeline of “Americans” (although some hailed from before the organization of the United States, a fact the museum seems unconcerned about) who purportedly innovated their way into prominence via business excellence.

American Enterprise Exhibit, National Museum of American History, March 2016

In standing before and looking at this display, my initial impression was that a relatively large number of women were represented in each of the five eras into which the timeline was divided: in the 1770 segment, 16 individual profiles were included, 4 of which were women (1 Native American, 1 Chinese, 2 White). The 1850 segment was even more diverse: 26 individual profiles were included, 9 of which were women (2 African American, 1 Japanese, 6 White). The 1930 segment, and each segment following, were quite sparse by comparison: out of the 11 individual profiles included for 1930, 4 were women, all White; for 1970 (shown above), which also featured 11 profiles, that number had dropped to just 2 women (1 African American, 1 White); finally, in the 2010 segment, 12 individual profiles were included, with 5 women, 1 Latina, 4 White. Altogether, women of all ethnicities represented approximately 32% of the profiles featured on the exhibit installation; further, approximately 33% of the women represented were non-white. Given the long history of women’s exclusion from land and business ownership and other restrictions foreclosing on high-status business positions in the United States, such numbers initially give the impression of gender inclusivity; after all, in the 250 years represented by this exhibit, women were only full legal citizens for the last century and only gained the right to own property more recently than that.

However, upon closer examination several of the women represented in the American Enterprise installation tend to have tenuous claims (at best) to business success, calling into question the criteria by which individuals were chosen for inclusion: of the 24 women profiled, one of these is Addie Card, a female child laborer; one is Afong Moy, “Exploited Attraction,” noted for the fact that she was brought to the United States in 1834 as a curiosity and exhibited by wealthy patrons for entertainment; another is Tei Shida Saito, “Picture Bride,” whose claim to fame includes being forced into an arranged marriage to a Japanese pineapple farmer in Hawaii. How these women are representative of the history of American enterprise, other than as pawns in the hands of powerful men, remains unclear.

American Enterprise Exhibit, National Museum of American History, March 2016

Out of the remaining women profiled, most of these are noted for success in occupations that are overtly domestic in nature: clothing construction or design, hair care products, diet programs for women, food preparation, and makers of toys for girls (specifically, the Barbie doll) are all strongly represented among the businesses referenced. These businesswomen are lauded for pursuits still closely tied to the domestic sphere and women’s “traditional” roles as housekeeper, wife, mother, and reproductive laborer, regardless of the century in question: the 2010 group features Dora Hilda Escobar, a restaurateur; Sara Blakely, the creator of Spanx (a tight-fitting garment akin to a girdle); Myra Goodman and her husband, organic food growers; and Maria Durazo, a labor organizer. Based on the representations of “enterprise” represented in this exhibit, it is clear that the roles for which American women are and have been venerated have not changed significantly over time; they have simply moved into for-profit arenas.

American Enterprise Exhibit, National Museum of American History, March 2016

Most curious, the period between 1970 and 2010 featured only two “businesswomen” – Oprah Winfrey and Gloria Steinem. As those of us who lived through it understand, this forty-year period was a time of phenomenal growth for women activists, businesspersons, political leaders, and other innovations and occupations. Yet somehow, a vibrant and widely diverse segment of business history in the United States has been reduced to reference to two women who, however deserving of a spot on the wall, are nonetheless merely a fraction of the successful businesswomen who made a name and a fortune for themselves during this time. Regardless of curatorial intention, the manner in which women have been included in this display is a direct outgrowth of the manner in which white women, women of color, and men are positioned in relation to each other in American society. White men predominate, while women are positioned against them as supplemental, narrative add-ons – marginal. The “diversity” of the American Enterprise exhibit reads like a hierarchy, with white cis men at the top, then white cis women, and finally persons of color, with women of color included in low numbers and only as a counterpoint to representations of white cis women. Representation for LGBTQ individuals simply doesn’t exist within the exhibit space.

It is hard to imagine that just two women (pictured in the first photograph in this section), perhaps carefully chosen for their race, gender-conforming appearance and sexuality, could sufficiently represent all enterprising women of period. Moreover, the particular challenges women have historically faced in the business world are not mentioned, nor are the legal and cultural barriers that linger into the present day. In fact, testing Sorensen’s assertion that simply adding women to a particular historical narrative does not challenge nor alter the message to a significant degree (33), it is entirely possible to imagine the American Enterprise exhibit functioning relatively unhampered even if the women were removed. Somehow, even present in the exhibit, women are still in some ways inessential to the narrative it constructs and, by extension, to the enterprise conducted out in American society.

American on the Move Exhibit, National Museum of American History, March 2016

Yet at the same time, the presence of women in the American Enterprise exhibit is completely essential to the gender and race hierarchies it constructs. That both men and women engage in business and enterprise, and have always done so, is made clear through the artifacts and information on display. Thus a simple public/private dichotomy is made illogical in the face of the equally significant contributions of both genders. When examined more closely, however, as my example shows, that dichotomy emerges in convoluted ways, made strange by positioning women in business as for-profit domestics in relation to men as simply businessmen. In this way, gender asymmetry is visibly if rather insidiously performed by American Enterprise, limiting the possible futures of women in business by reinforcing the archaic boundaries of the past. Within the walls of this exhibit, women remain the minority, the exception, and the reproductive laborers of a culture run by elite white men.
Performing Asymmetry in American on the Move

Of the numerous exhibits at the NMAH available for analysis, it is important to include an analysis of that is at the heart of the “American Dream”: the history of ground transportation in the U.S. America on the Move is an exhibit on the first exhibition level that moves the museum visitor through the history of transportation in America from horse-drawn wagons to the (relatively) modern automobile. The sensory appeal of this exhibit was quite powerful. Most of us have experience with driving or riding in vehicles of different kinds, and can draw upon those experiences when engaging with vehicles unfamiliar to us. Our bodies remember the feelings of movement experiences while using transportation, the vibrations, acceleration, and centripetal forces that act upon us as we move through space. The size of the artifacts in this exhibit also make for a memorable encounter: locomotives, buses, trolley cars, subway cars, and wagons and vehicles of all shapes and sizes are carefully positioned within narrative vignettes and in relation to groupings of life-size human mannequins (painted a monochromatic grey) in a variety of poses, genders and ethnicities. Walking through the exhibit space, the senses are overloaded with opportunities to understand the displays in relation to the physical body. The exhibit provides a wealth of text and images to accompany and complement the more 3-D artifacts, as well as a selection of digital interactives and audio features. One can not only see, but hear and touch the information on offer as well.

The theme of the exhibit is not overtly gendered; as we are expected to know, men and women have long used various modes of public and private transportation, and in large numbers. While women may have had additional restrictions on their travel (due to a variety of factors), the exhibit shows them riding bicycles, driving cars, and as passengers on trolleys and buses. For this reason, the impressions created here, when compared to American Enterprise, are more difficult to quantify. Women appear in a variety of ways and performing a number of roles, from a text panel detailing the first woman to drive across America (Alice Huyler Ramsey, completing her trip in 1909) to driving a minivan full of children down a modern American highway.

However, given the prevalence of white men, the impression one inevitably makes is that they outnumber women (of all races) by at least two to one. The white men, identifiable by their Anglicized features, are posed as engineers, drivers, and operators; they are present in each and every scenario, whether it be riding a motorcycle, owning a grocer’s shop, or selling a couple a new car. In one vignette, titled “On the Interstate, 1956-1990,” 9 figures are distributed within the vehicles on display; of these, 3 are female, and one is an African American male. In a vignette directly across from this display (shown below), a white couple (one male, one female) sit across from a white male salesman in a car dealership; the “road” directly behind their position is peopled with 8 figures, two of which are female (one driver, one passenger). Based on these two proximal examples alone, women (of all races) represent roughly five out of seventeen, or 29%, of the figures present.

American on the Move Exhibit, National Museum of American History, March 2016

But just as a closer look at who the women of American Enterprise were, and how they were being presented, lends a distinct insight into current attitudes about American women and their relationship to the world of business and enterprise, the women of America on the Move overwhelmingly perform roles which are stereotypical and unimaginative; even in the display of a travel trailer, the white male figure sits outside in a lawn chair, reading the newspaper, while an adult female and young girl figure cook and set the table inside (pictured below). His leisure clearly communicates his privilege. Or in the car dealership display, where a pregnant woman sits beside her husband (both white) while he negotiates the price of a new car with a white salesman, the audio playback an animated negotiation between two male voices. While certainly representative of some historical moments, the gender performed in and through America on the Move is insidiously influential in the way that, as Evelyn Nakano Glenn has argued, it renders the category of white male as the transparent but powerful core around which the exhibit weaves its narrative of progress (13). There is no public/private divide here; yet that does little to correct the unequal distributions of power the exhibit reifies and reconstructs.

America on the Move Exhibit, National Museum of American History, March 2016

Rather, the exhibit performs a kind of gender asymmetry that is echoed across the museum’s other exhibits; where women are represented, they are defined by their relationships to men and a male-centric society, and even while traveling, white women in particular are frequently tied to domestic roles. For example, I was amused to discover a display of a 1980s-era minivan, inside of which sat life-sized figures of a white woman for the driver, an infant in a child safety seat, and two other children, clearly someone’s idea of representative American womanhood. Within the same display, an African American woman drives alone in a two-door car, as well as at least six white men. Elsewhere in the exhibit, a lone figure of an African American women identified as Charlotte Hawkins Brown (pictured below) sits waiting for a bus. The presence of Brown, a key figure in African American education and a strong proponent of an “uplift” strategy in the early 1900s, in an exhibit on transportation seems to be a nod to her activism. Her connection to the exhibit seems to stem from her efforts to “move up” African American people into the norms of white society, a tenuous and deeply troubling link, at best. Yet her very presence requires that we attend, and perhaps even sit next to her, trying to understand her importance within such a powerful memory space.

While white men and even women of color were shown as traveling alone, white women are predominantly shown accompanied by a white man or with one or more children – or both. In this way, white cis women are represented as persons who travel in the course of their domestic duties, counterbalanced by women of color who do not. Like the white men, women of color are often depicted alone, but not as engineers or bus drivers. They inhabit a marginal space within the exhibit, a token inclusivity that, in practice, changes little of the overarching narrative of white male superiority. The white men are always already the historical actors in this narrative; white women, children and women and men of color are participants, essential for the contrast they provide and the supporting role that functions to further elevate the purported innovativeness and exploratory nature of white men. Such positioning echoes the hierarchies of the American Enterprise exhibit, a clear indicator of larger social patterns at work.

“Charlotte Hawkins Brown,” America on the Move Exhibit, National Museum of American History, March 2016

America on the Move clearly conveys the idea that innovations in mechanized transportation in the United States have undoubtedly offered freedoms for all who can afford to participate, regardless of gender; however, the terms and constraints upon that participation as produced through the exhibit clearly favor the narrative of the innovative and independent white man conquering both machine and distance with his mettle. The freedom to travel is clearly a privilege provided by white men, a freedom in which women, children and people of color participate, but do not have ownership rights. This, in effect, reifies the normalized hierarchy of power that maintains white males as the dominant figures of American culture, both past and present.

Performing Asymmetry in The First Ladies

Perhaps the most obvious example of overtly gendered exhibits at the NMAH is The First Ladies exhibit. Because this exhibit has been lauded as one of the only national history exhibits to focus exclusively on women, it is an important inclusion. The exhibit’s main draw is the gowns of the First Ladies of the United States, past and present. By using the gowns, which are so closely related to the physical body, the exhibit maintains a lasting popularity for an international public who are curious about the women who lived the moments in history we can now only peer at through glass. The exhibit is also one of the few with such an embodied theme, and as such is best understood in those terms.

The First Ladies Exhibit, National Museum of American History, March 2016

Centered on Exhibition Level 3, the exhibit shares an entrance and a theme with The American Presidency exhibit: a glimpse of the person(s) who, over the entire history of the United States, held the highest political office in the country.[vi]. The First Ladies exhibit as it exists today is the work of curator Edith P. Mayo, who in 1992 reportedly “developed a bold new exhibition based on political and social history” (Graddy and Pastan, 10). Although the famous dress collection has been displayed in one form or another since 1914, the public’s fascination with the first ladies’ clothes is cited as the major motivation for the continued presence of the gowns in the redesigned exhibit (Graddy and Pastan, 11).

Along with a reconfiguration of the display space, Mayo’s role seems to have been to add further insight into the person and political activity of the featured first ladies, an attempt to shift the focus of the exhibit away from a costume gallery and toward the role of first lady itself. For example, a prominent text panel located in The First Ladies exhibit, “American Women and Politics,” focuses exclusively on the fact that women have always been politically active despite having few legal and civil rights of their own (The First Ladies). The inclusion of such a text panel does offer some insight into the political role of some of America’s first ladies, offering museum visitors a glimpse into the complexity of their lives. However, the words on this panel and other brief mentions of political activity are entirely overwhelmed by the narrative the exhibit’s artifacts generate, the story of women filling a role defined by a contradictory domesticity that is somehow at once both public and private.

The First Ladies Exhibit, National Museum of American History, March 2016

The First Ladies exhibit boasts an elegant black and grey color scheme that provides a visual focus for the gowns and china place settings that make up the majority of the exhibit’s artifacts. At the time of my visit in 2016, a row of life-size photographs of five First Ladies and a memorial placard, dedicated to Nancy Reagan (who passed away just before my arrival in Washington, D.C.), dominated the entrance. Other than the text on the memorial placard, which simply reads “In Memoriam: Nancy David Reagan, July 6 1921 – March 6, 2016. First Lady 1981 – 1989,” and the exhibit name, the entrance boasts no other text. The entrance photographs (below) offered a glimpse of the exhibit’s focus and content: dressed in beautiful gowns, four former and one current first lady gaze out at the curious observer. Of the five, Betty Ford on the left and Nancy Reagan in the center were easy for me to recognize, while two of the others pictured were less so. Michelle Obama, pictured with her husband (the only one to be so) was also there, on the right (pictured, below).

The First Ladies Exhibit, National Museum of American History, March 2016

The artifacts on display in The First Ladies exhibit are organized along two principal themes: the inauguration or other gowns worn by selected first ladies for official state functions, and samples of the White House china service selected and used by each woman filling this role. The gowns are displayed on life-sized, headless mannequins behind floor-to-ceiling glass panels. Raised slightly off the walkway floor, this large display is divided into several sections and arranged in thematic vignettes, rather than in chronological order. Each gown is accompanied by an information panel beneath it that describes the designer and details of the garment’s construction. For example, in the section of display pictured below, from left to right the gowns of Grace Coolidge (circa 1920s), Mamie Eisenhower (circa 1950s), and Lucy Hayes (circa 1880s) are arranged and described.

Despite the large size of the gown displays, only a fraction of the gowns acquired by the museum are on display at any given time (Graddy and Pastan 11).

As Mayo remarked, public fascination with the gowns in this display continues to be strong. No doubt part of this continuing appeal can be attributed to a cultural interest in fashion and women’s attire; however, a significant factor in the exhibit’s continued popularity may lie in the way that people tend to explore and understand their environment with their bodies, engaging with objects and structures in terms of the size, shape, and functions of the human body. Clothing, as a close proximate and the articles most often in the closest proximity to the physical body, offers an uncanny glimpse into the physicality of an individual long removed from mortality. For this reason, displaying the gowns of women in public-yet-private roles is interpreted as an invitation to relate, personally, physically, to the vanished individual underneath. Encountering history through the body and the body’s attire, visitors to The First Ladies exhibit are offered an illusion of intimacy while keeping any true knowledge of the women represented tantalizingly out of reach. By focusing on gowns, the exhibit also maintains a strong focus on the bodies of the First Ladies, relegating all else about her (including their accomplishments and public activities) to a distant second.

The First Ladies Exhibit, National Museum of American History, March 2016

The second main feature of The First Ladies exhibit is the display of White House place settings, which occupy the entirety of two of the exterior walls. Unlike the gown displays, this lengthy procession of china service is arranged in chronological order, starting with Martha Washington immediately to the left of the entrance and ending with Michelle Obama on the opposite side of the room. Text panels below each grouping describe the type and style of service ascribed to each first lady, while on the wall above the display case is situated each woman’s picture, name, relationship to the President, birth and death dates, dates she served as First Lady and her age upon assuming that role. A select few have a second text panel describing the particular entertaining style of the woman shown.

At times, incoming first ladies decided to use the service selected by her predecessor; for others, like Michelle Obama’s state china, the place setting was still in use in 2016 or not on display for other reasons. Thus the actual number of place settings differs from the number of first ladies.

As the current first lady, Michelle Obama’s inaugural gown was also still prominently displayed in the center of the exhibit in early 2016. Alone in a glass case, the gown, shoes, and jewelry worn by Mrs. Obama at President Obama’s 2009 Inaugural Ball are available for the observer to move in close and to examine from all sid

The photograph accompanying the gown is the same as the one at the entrance, showing the Obamas walking together, faces in near-profile. This same photograph occurs a third time, near the back of the exhibit, where another wall-sized version of this image is accompanied by a quotation attributed to Michelle Obama, which reads: “…there is no formal job description for the first lady of the United States, so we have the good fortune of being able to decide what we want to do” (The First Ladies).

This sentiment echoes that of several larger text panels that dot in the interior exhibit space. For example, a prominent panel near the exhibit entrance titled “The First Ladies” reads:

First ladies are unofficial but important members of presidential administrations.

For more than 200 years we have judged their clothes, their parties, their projects, and their roles in the White House…Each one remakes this undefined and challenging position to suit her own interests, the needs of the administration, and the public’s changing expectations of women in general and first ladies in particular. (The First Ladies)

That “remak[ing] this undefined and challenging position” is closely tied to domestic duties writ large is clarified by a second large panel adjacent to the place setting display, titled “The Nation’s Hostess.” This panel states: “As hostess for the nation and the presidential administrations…[e]ach reception or dinner is an opportunity for the first lady to help build America’s international relationships, win political friends and public support for the president, or further his administration’s legislative agenda” (The First Ladies). This text panel sets the tone for the exhibit, which focuses primarily on the hostess aspect of the role of First Lady, the visibility and presentation of her person (through clothing and image) and place setting. Although politics is an important theme throughout the exhibit, the women represented within tend to be linked to their work with or on behalf of children or other charitable causes, rather than on their political or even professional achievements. The information provided about Michelle Obama, for example, focuses on her role as mother and promoter of child welfare, rather than on her ivy-league education, career as a lawyer, or literary publications.

An examination of Hillary Clinton’s profile in the exhibit underscores this tendency: as one of the most politically accomplished women to ever fill the role of first lady, Clinton is still afforded the same brevity as the others. One could argue that Clinton’s political history is necessarily omitted due to space constraints, reducing her and all of the other First Ladies to only that which will fit inside a predetermined box. This distortion is a key aspect of the exhibit, working to omit as much of each person as possible outside of her domestic roles. The only nod to her historic candidacy for President of the United States in 2008, although a small text panel elsewhere in the exhibit asks (and answers): “What will happen when the President is a Woman? She will have to reconsider the duties of the first lady and whether she expects her husband, a family member, or others to assume this role in her administration” (The First Ladies). This panel’s seeming inability to imagine the role of nation’s hostess untethered to the female spouse of the current President (despite other references to this exact situation elsewhere in the exhibit itself) echoes some of the resistance that Clinton faced in her bid for election to the nation’s highest political office.

The First Ladies Exhibit, National Museum of American History, March 2016

While many of the women represented in The First Ladies exhibit may not have had a voice in determining the manner of their inclusion, the same is perhaps less true of Michelle Obama, the self-styled “mom-in-chief” who seems to have deliberately chosen to align herself with domestic roles in an attempt to present less of a target to a deeply racist American public. As the first African-American First Lady, Obama recognized a need to cultivate the same domestic image as those liberally applied to previous first ladies as she filled an historically white female role. Unlike Clinton, whose white privilege afforded her some leeway in her attempts to re-shape the mold into a politically active one, Obama’s inclusion is carefully styled to avoid even the appearance of unconventionality. Every photograph of her in the exhibit (except the picture over the china service display), is the same, a photo of Michelle Obama, in profile, accompanied by her husband.

For me, the lack of a direct gaze read as a deliberate attempt to make her appear less threatening, while the tendency to picture her with her husband served to underscore her heterosexual conventionality. As observed in the America on the Move exhibit, the representation of African American women is always already working against a strong cultural desire to mark their bodies as incapable of fulfilling the white elite ideal of wife, mother, cultural leader, or role model. Her presence among dozens of white first ladies challenges the normalization of elite whiteness, reifies its underlying precepts, and reifies the terms of inclusion.

Visitors might assume that because The First Ladies exhibit shares an entrance with The American Presidency exhibit, and that it is devoted entirely to the role of women in the White House, that it is evidence of and represents the equality and importance of women’s contributions to the nation. In practice, however, as the representation of Clinton and Obama both illustrate, this themed exhibit serves to reify the uncomfortable tension arising from women taking on highly visible, public and political roles in American society.

To underscore this point, one need only compare the contents of The American Presidency exhibit next door. The display cases on each president are both far more personal and more complex; their careers and characters are frequently depicted, as are traditions that rose up around their presidencies. Where family is mentioned, it tends to focus on the children, rather than the spouses, of the top political leaders of our nation. What is more, the displays in this exhibit tend to expand on topics related to the office of the presidency, including one alcove featuring a brief history of presidential funerals in America. Selected clothing from the men is displayed, including Abraham Lincoln’s iconic top hat, George Washington’s uniform, and so on, but these are accompanied by other large artifacts – chairs, desks, even caskets – that balance the focus of the displays rather than dominating them.

When compared to the complexity, breadth and depth of the displays next door, as well as the allotment of space, The First Ladies exhibit appears starkly limited in the possible narratives to which it can contribute. At a time when the role of First Lady is an increasingly public and influential one, such limitations reinforce the marginalization of women within politics and justify a continuing distrust of women in powerful, public positions. As Hilde S. Hein has argued, “Objects, like language, serve as principle media for the formation, expression, and confirmation of human relationships, and so museums that preserve objects are mines of knowledge about the workings of human societies” (31). Removing the first ladies to their own exhibit has the unfortunate effect of removing them from the narrative of the American Presidency, both in the museum and in the canon of American history, despite their obvious and public role and position of influence. Focusing on dresses and china reaffirms their status as decorative, superfluous, and ornamental, reducing our understanding of each woman to that which fits within the outlines of a female body. Further, due to the close connections between body and clothing, and the caregiving functions of the domestic sphere and china place settings, The First Ladies positions even extraordinarily accomplished women, past and present, as wives and home-makers, and ornamental complements to the men who hold “real” power.

For these and other reasons, The First Ladies is one of the most aggressive assertions of the white, cis, female norm through gender stereotyping and reification of the domestic role in the museum space. It more than suggests that the role of even our nation’s leading wife and matron of the White House is still largely to host dinners and play a supporting, ornamental role during important functions (as evidenced by the gowns), a message completely at odds with the vital and ongoing work in which most of our politically driven, intelligent and thoroughly capable First Ladies engaged during their lives.

Material Implications
Today, women have claimed public space as their own in many ways, entering business and politics in increasing numbers, earning advanced degrees and, alongside men, influencing policy and directing social and civil rights movements in material and ideological ways. But their hold on public space remains tenuous, always under pressure to regress by patriarchal practices; the unquestioned right to a permanent presence in public life and in public museums is, for women, far from guaranteed. To a significant degree, women of all backgrounds and non-white men in the United States continue to be considered public bodies, rather than persons occupying the public sphere. The same is not true for white men, whose right to occupy the public sphere is a given in American culture and political system. Where women and non-white men do appear, both in the museum and in public, they tend to be so closely associated with the attributes of their physical bodies that they are often unable to transcend that association, the most important criteria by which historical greatness has traditionally been bestowed. This association is clearly visible in the artifacts chosen to represent them: dresses, household appliances, table settings, images of non-white and female bodies performing a variety of manual and reproductive labors.This association is also clearly visible in cultural attitudes and government policies that deny women autonomy over their own bodies and hold them unequally responsible for the childrearing and housekeeping tasks that constitute the tissue of family life.[vii]

Carole Pateman points to this inequality, and to the asymmetrical positioning of gendered and raced bodies, arguing “[w]omen have never been completely excluded…from public life; but the way in which women are included is grounded, as firmly as their position in the domestic sphere, in patriarchal beliefs and practices” (132). To the extent that public life intersects with public representation, this contradictory situation seems well supported by the evidence. In the object-laden space of the history museum, the performances of gender tend to be overtly patriarchal and inherently asymmetrical: perhaps this is because the exhibits and their publics are negotiating both epistemological dichotomies and the material traces of “real” ones (i.e., embodied, practiced) at the same time, contributing to narratives that may be contradictory, paradoxical, even, in the same way that gender in America is a paradoxical function of culture and political technologies of power.

American Presidency Exhibit, National Museum of American History, March 2016

Within the context of the public history museum, gender asymmetry is performed through the selection and arrangement of its displays and exhibits, the architecture of the building, interior design and lighting elements, and in myriad other ways. It is so pervasive, in fact, that feminist scholar Gaby Porter has argued that the entire concept of the history museum is founded on “embodied assumptions about men and women, masculine and feminine” (63). It is so pervasive, I would add, that the hierarchical positioning of one gender over another is rendered nearly invisible within the ordinary process of meaning-making that occurs within the museum space and, therefore, within the cultural and historical narratives in which it participates.

For this reason, regaining a certain degree of visibility is crucial to understanding and then crafting challenges to a conservative historical tradition based on such inequalities, and issues of representation in and through history museums like the NMAH take on a renewed sense of urgency. As Eilean Hooper-Greenhill has claimed, “[q]uestions of meaning are questions of power, which raise issues of the politics of representation” (19). As an active maker of meaning, the NMAH is deeply implicated in the political processes of visibility and legitimacy explored by feminist theorists including Judith Butler. For Butler, “representation serves as the operative term” in these processes (2). As political subjects, women require sufficient representation to support their status and position within a public; however, in Butler’s view, the “pervasive cultural condition” has guaranteed that “women’s lives were either misrepresented or not represented at all” (2). For museum scholar Bruce W. Ferguson, exhibitions are “publicly sanctioned representations of identity” that use artifacts as “elements in institutionalized stories” (175). Ferguson has further argued that “Exhibitions are the material speech of what is essentially a political institution, one with legal and ethical responsibilities, constituencies and agents who act in relation to differing sets of consequences and influences at any given historical moment” (182). Within this complex network of often competing interests, representation becomes a fraught political process imbued with the beliefs, attitudes, and values of potentially conflicting stakeholders.

In the museum, representations are “purposefully creative and…generate new social and political formations” notes Hooper-Greenhill. “Through the persistent production of certain images and the suppression of others, and through controlling the way images are viewed or artifacts are preserved, visual representations can be used to produce a view of the nation’s history” (25). So when Hooper-Greenhill asks “Who has the power to create, to make visible, and to legitimate meanings and values?” (19), it is a political question, a question of power, status, and publicness. It is a question capable of impacting innumerable facets of public and private life for diverse American publics.


The relationships that are made visible through my study of the NMAH are complex; as I concluded my study, I brought away with me the distinct impression that the gender asymmetry performed inside the walls of our national history museum is quite durable and contributes in significant ways to the practices of gender relations that permeate it and American society.[viii]They are relations made strange through piecemeal challenges to stereotypical or outright misogynistic displays about and toward women in the United States: I expected to see men and women and the material traces of men and women displayed with a certain degree of binary gender relativity. Indeed, I discovered no references to non-binary genders in the exhibits. However, what actually emerged from my study was the conviction that the gender dichotomies constructed by the NMAH position men and women in categorical relation to one another in complex and asymmetrical ways. In fact, although I have prioritized gender in this article, there are many aspects of the performance of asymmetry in the NMAH influenced by and constituted with a range of other categorical inequalities, most visibly race and ethnicity, that are just as critical to achieving a fully textured understanding of the relationships between material representation and the lingering inequalities that hamper women in their quest for full, successful lives.

Judith Butler argues that it is “impossible to separate out ‘gender’ from the political and cultural intersections in which it is invariably produced and maintained” (4-5). If this is the case, then the manner in which gender is constituted and performed within our hallowed historical institutions, positioned at these political and cultural intersections, is one of the most accessible and material indicators of progress toward greater equality and inclusivity. Thus when we find, as my study of the NMAH did, circumstances in which women are positioned (often against their will) as ornamental or inessential to the core narrative of our nation’s history, such circumstances demand rectification. No matter what other materials exist, or in which spaces, until the authoritative representation of our national history includes us all, it will continue to perpetrate the gravest injustice upon those it maligns, misrepresents, or renders silent.

Works Cited
Almendrala, Anna. “Most Americans Still Think Women Should Do The Bulk Of The Housework.” Huffington Post. 29 Aug. 2016. Web. 1 Sep. 2016.

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958. Print.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2010. Print.

Blair, Carole. “Contemporary U.S. Memorial Sites as Exemplars of Rhetoric’s Materiality.” Rhetorical Bodies. Eds. Jack Selzer and Sharon Crowley. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1999. 16-57. Print.

Blair, Carole, Greg Dickinson and Brian L. Ott. “Rhetoric/Memory/Place.” Places of Public Memory: The Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials. Eds. Greg Dickinson, Carole Blair, and Brian L. Ott. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2010. 1-56. Print.

Budgeon, Shelley. Third Wave Feminism and the Politics of Gender in Late Modernity. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.

Butler, Beverly. “Virginia Woolf, Madonna and Me: Searching for Role-Models and Women’s Presence in Museums and Heritage.” Women in Industry and Technology: From Prehistory to the Present Day. Eds. Amanda Devonshire and Barbara Wood. London: Museum of London, 1994. 19–30. Print.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of the Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.

Davidoff, Lenore. “‘Regarding Some “Old Husbands” Tales’: Public and Private in Feminist History.” In Worlds Between: Historical Perspectives on Gender and Class. Oxford: Polity Press, 1995. 227-76. Print.

Des Jardins, Julie. Women & the Historical Enterprise in America: Gender, Race, and the Politics of Memory, 1880-1945. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Print.

Ferguson, Bruce W. “Exhibition Rhetorics: Material Speech and Utter Sense.” Thinking About Exhibitions. Eds. Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W. Ferguson, and Sandy Nairne. London: Routledge, 1996. 175-190. Print.

Fraser, Nancy. Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989. Print.

Glenn, Evelyn Nakano. Unequal Freedom: How Race and Gender Shaped American Citizenship and Labor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002. Print.

Graddy, Lisa Kathleen and Amy Pastan. The Smithsonian First Ladies Collection. Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Books, 2014. Print.

Hein, Hilde S. The Museum in Transition: A Philosophical Perspective. Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2000. Print.

Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean. Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 2000. Print.

Lerner, Gerda. The Majority Finds its Past: Placing Women in History. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1979. Print.

Macdonald, Sharon. “Theorizing Museums.” Theorizing Museums: Representing Identity and Diversity in a Changing World. Ed. Sharon Macdonald and Gordon Fyfe. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996. 1–20. Print.

“Mission & History.” National Museum of American History. Smithsonian Institution. n.d. Web. 30 March 2016

Pateman, Carole. The Disorder of Women: Democracy, Feminism and Political Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989. Print.”Feminist Critiques of the Public/Private Dichotomy” pp. 118-140

Porter, Gaby. “Seeing Through Solidity: A Feminist Perspective on Museums.” Museum Studies: An Anthology of Contexts, 2nd ed. Ed. Bettina Messias Carbonell, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. p. 62-72.

Powell, Malea, Daisy Levy, Andrea Riley-Mukavetz, Marilee Brooks-Gillies, Maria Novotny, and Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson. “Our Story Begins Here: Constellating Cultural Rhetorics” Enculturation: A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture. 25 Oct. 2014. Web.

Royster, Jacqueline Jones and Gesa E. Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2012. Print.

Scott, Joan Wallach. Gender and the Politics of History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. Print.

Sorensen, Marie Louise Stig. Gender Archaeology. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2000. Print.
Sherr, Lynn and Jurate Kazickas. Susan B. Anthony Slept Here: A Guide to American Women’s Landmarks. New York: Times Books, 1994. Print.

“The First Ladies.” National Museum of American History. Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C. 9 Mar. 2016.

About the Author

Shersta A. Chabot is an Instructor for the Writing Program at Arizona State University. She received her Master’s degree in Rhetoric, Composition, and Linguistics and her Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Writing, and Literacies from ASU. Her research focuses on cultural rhetorics at the intersections of digital and material public memory.

About the Mentor

Lisa King is Associate Professor of Rhetoric, Writing, and Linguistics in the Department of English at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Her research and teaching interests are interdisciplinary, and include cultural rhetorics with an emphasis in contemporary Native American and Indigenous rhetorics. More specifically, her focus rests on the rhetorics of cross-cultural sites such as Indigenous museums and cultural centers, and theorizing cross-cultural pedagogy through the teaching of Indigenous texts in rhetoric and composition classrooms. She is the co-editor of Survivance, Sovereignty, and Story: Teaching American Indian Rhetorics (2015, with Rose Gubele and Joyce Rain Anderson), and author of Legible Sovereignties: Rhetoric, Representations, and Native American Museums (2017).


[i] See, for example, Evelyn Nakano Glenn, Unequal Freedom: How Race and Gender Shaped American Citizenship and Labor (2002); Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (1990); Marie Louise Stig Sorensen, Gender Archaeology (2000); Shelley Budgeon, Third Wave Feminism and the Politics of Gender in Late Modernity (2011); Lenore Davidoff, “‘Regarding Some “Old Husbands” Tales’: Public and Private in Feminist History” (1995); Julie Des Jardins, Women & the Historical Enterprise in America (2003); Nancy Fraser, Unruly Practices (1989)

[ii]In their anthology Places of Public Memory, Carole Blair, Greg Dickinson, and Brian L. Ott argue that memory places (including museums) are inherently and powerfully rhetorical and, as such, demand more sustained scholarly attention.

[iii] See also Hilde S. Hein, The Museum in Transition (2000), p. 148

[iv] Blair has argued that “No text is a text, nor does it have meaning, influence, political stance, or legibility, in the absence of material form. Rhetoric is not rhetoric until it is uttered, written, or otherwise manifested or given presence. Thus, we might hypothesize as a starting point for theorizing rhetoric that at least one of its basic characteristics (if not the most basic) is materiality” (18). She has further asserted that “we must ask not just what a text means but, more generally, what it does; and we must not understand what it does as adhering strictly to what it was supposed to do” (23). However, where Blair is still “reading” physical objects as texts, I argue that considering the object or artifact in terms of its own materiality results in a more richly textured understanding of the relationships in which it is engaged

[v] Investigating the material presence of women’s historical sites and landmarks in the United States, Lynn Sherr and Jurate Kazickas found that, as of 1994, “Less than 4 percent of National Park cultural sites and less than 5 percent of all National Historic Landmarks focus primarily on women” (x). Out of the one hundred (of approximately two thousand, total) national historical sites that do focus on women, a rare few include museums.

[iv] I include the “office” of First Lady here because although to date only men have held the office of President of the United States, the role of the first lady, however unofficial, contributes in significant (if often unrecognized) ways to the nature of that office and its temporary occupant. Such a two-for-one situation is also clearly indicated by the manner in which each role is represented by the NMAH

[vii] Gerda Lerner has argued: “The gender-linking of service functions and child-rearing is at the root of woman’s problem in society. The fact that every woman is a housewife, and that every housewife is a woman, structures inequality between the sexes into every institution of society” (111). Despite the many advances made by American women over the years, this seems to remain the case. For example, a new (2016) study out of Indiana University found that gender remains “by far the biggest determinant of Americans’ attitudes toward housework,” with women expected to perform the majority of household tasks regardless of income or employment status (Almedrala).

[viii] durable and contributes in significant ways to the practices of gender relations that permeate it and American society.


Copyeditor(s): Jessica Gibbons

Editorial Assistant(s): Lauren Brentnell, Catheryn Jennings

Production Editor: Ana Milena Ribero

Reviewer(s): Daisy Levy, Marilee Brooks-Gillies, and Lisa King