Since the mid-nineteenth century, women have been an important part of the historic preservation movement in the United States. As individuals and groups, as amateurs and professionals, women have worked to protect the country’s historic properties. Most credit the foundation of America’s preservation movement to Ann Pamela Cunningham who was appalled at the state of George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Starting in 1853, she began advocating for its preservation. Through a campaign answered by women from across the country the Mt. Version Ladies Association was born and paved the way to the preservation of Washington’s home.
However, before Cunningham, women were integral in many other instances of grassroots efforts for saving buildings, documenting history or creating memorials. Notably the creation of a monument in the 1820s for the Battle of Bunker Hill was championed by Sarah Josepha Hale through organized fundraising events. Even before Hale, cultural preservation in both African American and Native American traditions of storytelling has primarily been the role of women. Amachee Ochinee Prowers was an example of a Native cultural mediator who helped to preserve the cultural heritage of her people in what is now the state of Colorado. Mary B. Talbert is just one example of the many African American women who have been integral in the preservation of African American heritage and worked to champion black history as a part of our collective American history.
In the 1920’s, Susan Pringle Frost, founded the first community based historic preservation organization, first known Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings which is now known as Preservation Society of Charleston. This organization was instrumental in persuading the City of Charleston to establish the first local zoning ordinance to protect historic resources.
At the Federal Level there were several individual acts dating back to the 1906 Antiquities Act that established focused avenues of preservation; however, in 1966 the establishment of the National Historic Preservation Act was established. This act was a national network and standard of preservation that created professional jobs at both the federal and state level to administer historic preservation initiatives nationwide. One of the early professional preservationists was Nancy Schamu who worked for the Maryland Historical Trust starting in 1969 and is considered a leader in the modern preservation movement.
Locally here in Cincinnati, our preservation foundations were also thanks to three civic-minded women. In 1964, Elizabeth Hobson, Martha Phyllis Rowe, and Margo Tytus founded the Miami Purchase Association with an initial focused on saving Fort Miami and quickly expanded to saving historic buildings. Miami Purchase Association, later renamed Cincinnati Preservation Association, was integral to establishing local historic districts and formal government preservation in Cincinnati.
Throughout the history of the preservation movement women have been integral locally and across the nation. Historic preservation is about more than saving windows in an old house or repairing a plaster molding; it’s about preserving any and all aspects of the history of a culture, where possible. Making sure that we honor the contribution of women to our history as well as to saving our history is one way for us to celebrate Women’s History Month.
Local Women in Leadership Today
Greater Cincinnati can boast about a large number of female led cultural heritage institutions housed in historic buildings! CPA is proud to be among the many organizations who value preservation in their missions and currently have women at the helm. See some of them listed below:
Friends of Music Hall | Executive Director Mindy Rosen
American Sign Museum | Director Cynthia Kearns
Behringer-Crawford Museum | Executive Director Laurie Risch
Cincinnati Memorial Hall Society | Executive Director of the Cincinnati Memorial Hall Society and Longworth-Anderson Series Cori Wolff
Cincinnati Museum Center | President & CEO Elizabeth Pierce
Cincinnati Observatory | Executive Director Anna Hehman
Cincinnati Preservation Association | Executive Director Beth Johnson
Findlay Market | CEO Cordelia Heaney
Harriet Beecher Stowe House | Executive Director Christina Hartlieb
Over-the-Rhine Museum | Director of Museum Administration Donna Harris
Skirball Museum Cincinnati | Director Abby Schwartz
Taft Museum of Art | Louise Taft Semple President and CEO Rebekah Beaulieu
Greater Milford Area Historical Society | Executive Director Maria J. Keri