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.