Women’s History Is About to Get a Bigger Spotlight in America’s National Park System

A new executive order is designed to strengthen the NPS’s recognition of women’s history landmarks.

A rugged coastline with rolling waves and grass-covered hills

A new executive order aims to spotlight women’s history at such National Park Service areas as the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

Photo by Whitney Schwab/Shutterstock

The National Park Service has a gender inequality problem. The 429 units that it manages (which include parks, preserves, monuments, battlefields, and scenic trails) celebrate and protect significant historic sites across the country, but they are largely focused on males. In 2022, a researcher with the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Where Women Made History project found that only 18 percent of those units are associated with women’s history. The Biden Administration is hoping to change that.

On March 27, President Biden signed an executive order to strengthen and recognize women’s history throughout the National Park Service. Brenda Malloy, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, told AFAR that “having history reflect what all Americans and communities have contributed,” is a priority for the President and Vice President Kamala Harris. “Women are so important to so much that happens, but they unquestionably have not been lifted up through our designation of historic sites in the past,” Malloy said.

The National Park Service, which oversees the National Register of Historic Places, currently has several sites that recognize women, including the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park and the Clara Barton National Historic Site, both in Maryland. Other National Park Service units highlight women’s contributions to important events in U.S. history, such as the Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts, which tells the story of women involved in the Industrial Revolution, and the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park in California, which honors the role American women played during World War II.

A museum display showing a mannequin hanging up a paper shirt on a clothesline, surrounded by pictures and educational materials

Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park, in Richmond, California, is one of the few NPS units currently dedicated to women’s history.

Photo by EWY Media/Shutterstock

While the the NPS website has a section that features a handful of locations with connections to women’s history (and touts that “all parks have women’s history”), the organization’s formal recognition of specific notable women and their achievements is lacking, and these stories often go untold as a result.

Malloy told AFAR that “the Biden administration has been working since the very beginning to make our country broader, more representative, more inclusive.” Since taking office in 2021, President Biden expanded the national park system with new sites including the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument, which honors the Till family’s role in the Civil Rights movement; the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni National Monument, which protects lands and historic areas near the Grand Canyon that are sacred to tribal nations and Indigenous peoples; and Camp Amache in Colorado, where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. Malloy said that President Biden’s recent executive order continues his administration’s commitment to diversity and will help “make sure that the portfolio of federal sites across the country is more representative of women.”

The executive order directs the Department of the Interior, which oversees the National Park Service, to perform a comprehensive review of existing historic sites and national parks that are significant to women’s history and identify other locations that have not yet been designated as federal historic sites. The NPS will also research prominent women throughout U.S. history and determine which should be recognized at existing National Park Service locations.

Malloy told AFAR that an advisory board, which includes historians, archaeologists, and other experts, “will help identify places and women that may not have gotten attention in the past” and “provide recommendations about how women’s stories can better be told” in the future. This will “help us identify some of the stories that are really important, but that haven’t gotten covered,” she said. One spot on the project’s radar is the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, where the role of Sacagawea and other women could be highlighted.

A woman in a light green jacket overlooking a canal and flat fields at sunset from a bridge

Harriet Tubman Underground National Historical Park is one of the fewer than 20 percent of national park sites explicitly mentioning women.

Courtesy of Natonal Park Service

Malloy told AFAR that she hopes the National Park Service will identify more sites like the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument in Washington, D.C., which she helped create in 2016. It was from this house that Alice Paul and the National Women’s Party advocated for the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Today, visitors can tour the home and see documents related to the suffragette movement.

“As we expand as a country and think about how we promote and tell stories, taking it outside of a museum and putting it in a place is really important,” Malloy said. “That will lead you to a different type of recognition.” Preserving the landscape and allowing visitors to see what a location looked like when history was being made “helps people imagine what it was like then and to think about what means for them now.”

Jamie Davis Smith is a writer, attorney, and mother of four. Her writing has appeared in Fodor’s Travel, Travel + Leisure, USA Today, Yahoo, Business Insider, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, and many other publications. When not off exploring, Jamie can be found enjoying her hometown of Washington, D.C.
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