Women and the Historic Preservation Movement in the United States
In certain circles in the United States, historic preservationists have a curious reputation as ‘little old ladies in blue hair and tennis shoes’. This reputation has derogatory undertones that speak to a specific stereotype of preservationists that developed mainly in the second half of the twentieth century: people often believe preservationists to be busybody old women rushing to halt the march of progress. On the one hand, this speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding of the work of preservationists. On the other hand, this reputation highlights the fact that when people think of preservationists, they think of women. Why is this?
Women played a crucial role in the development of both local and national preservation movements in the United States, dating back to the mid-nineteenth century when preservation advocacy was in its infancy. The role of women in preservation was unique to the United States, but historians and preservationists alike often overlook this contribution. Without women, however, countless monuments and landmarks across the country would have been lost.
That women played such an important role in the development of historic preservation in the United States speaks to the unique environment that already existed in the country. By the early 1800s, antiquarians and preservationists across Europe were working to protect tangible remains of the past, but European preservationists were overwhelmingly male.
In France after the Revolution, with the exception of the Napoleonic era, heritage protection was the purview of the state, and bureaucratic measures ensured the inventory and protection of historic monuments. These conservation efforts effectively sidelined women, however, who did not hold government positions in nineteenth-century France.
In Germany, local historical associations proliferated, but these groups were composed almost entirely of men. So too in Britain, where some women joined historical and antiquarian societies, and more subscribed to antiquarian journals, but women remained on the periphery of any activism, with the notable exception of Octavia Hill, a social reformer who was one of the founders of the National Trust in 1895.
In the United States, however, women were at the forefront of preservationism from the beginning. The importance of women to preservation was due in no small part to the unique political atmosphere in the country during the nineteenth century. All historic preservation has patriotic undertones, but in many European countries, patriotism manifested itself in celebrations of traditional cultural practices or attempts to reconcile class divisions through activities such as ‘open spaces activism’. In the United States, nationalistic sentiment in historic preservation manifested itself in the reverential treatment of the homes of the founding fathers, particularly George Washington and Thomas Jefferson’s estates in Virginia.
When George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate was threatened with development in 1853, Ann Pamela Cunningham formed the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA) to protect the first president’s home. The 1850s were a time of social and political turmoil, as the conflict over slavery grew ever closer to the boiling point, and in that landscape, the founding fathers represented the ideal of national unity for many Americans. Ann Cunningham was the wealthy daughter of a planter and slave owner from South Carolina at a time when genteel American women were expected to focus their interests on domestic and moral matters in the tradition of ‘republican motherhood’. Cunningham’s MVLA turned their attention to the home and domestic traditions of George Washington at Mount Vernon, and by combining their efforts with prominent academics and speakers of the day, including Edward Everett, the women ensured that Washington’s estate was conserved, rehabilitated, and protected from damage during the Civil War.
The MVLA inspired other women to form similar preservation groups, usually with a focus on Revolutionary War sites and the homes of other founding fathers and presidents.
Through the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries, women’s preservation groups continued to focus on sites of national interest, but preservation groups also increasingly began to take an interest in local matters. The fight to preserve the open space of the Boston Common led to the creation of the first subway in America. In San Antonio, Texas, a teacher named Adina De Zavala advocated for the protection of historic Spanish mission sites. In Charleston, South Carolina, realtor Susan Pringle Frost bought historic homes in poor neighbourhoods and attempted to rehabilitate and sell them. In Richmond, Virginia, Mary Wingfield Scott, who held a PhD in architectural history, campaigned to preserve historic housing in a neighbourhood populated by African Americans and Eastern European immigrants at a time when preservation efforts usually remained focused on buildings that had architectural significance or associations with famous historical characters.
These efforts, which flourished from the 1890s to the 1930s, represented a shift not only in the general outlook on historic preservation, but a change in the way women viewed their role in it. As historic preservation focused increasingly on sites that contributed to local character and cultural understanding, it became less patriotic than aesthetic, and women turned away from an emphasis on morality and domesticity to become advocates of historic structures as touchstones of American culture. Groups dedicated to the preservation of local heritage that flourished in the early twentieth century were most commonly led by women.
Even as the federal government took on increasing responsibilities in historic preservation in the mid-twentieth century, women’s preservation groups continued to play an important role, especially in local advocacy. Today, preservation societies flourish in cities across the United States, driven by thousands of professionals and volunteers alike. The MVLA continues to operate Mount Vernon as a house museum, receiving over a million visitors a year. Groups like the Preservation Society of Charleston and the San Antonio Conservation Society, formed in the 1920s, continue to play an important part in protecting historic structures, landscapes, and cultural sites in their areas.
Women played an important role in protecting patriotic sites when societal mores generally relegated them to domestic roles, but women also proved to be unafraid to challenge restrictive societal expectations and use preservation as a tool to shape cultural understanding. The benefits of their efforts are still perceptible today.