April 10, 2023

The Path to Our 40th Anniversary

In 1997, our first museum exhibit was at the Women’s History Reclamation Project at Golden Hill’s Art Union Building, 23rd and Broadway.  Presiding at the opening were the indomitable, charismatic 73-year-old Mary Maschal, co-founder and President of the WHRP, and the talented, passionate Cindy Stankowski, WHRP’s Museum Director. 

They had moved Mary’s large collection of books and archives from Mary’s nearby home.  This had been a long time coming – Mary and two friends incorporated the WHRP in 1983. Mary had been collecting oral histories, making presentations about women’s history to schools and organizations, and accumulating books and artifacts from basements and attics. (She snagged fabulous turn-of-the-century papers and artifacts collected by California suffragist Alice Park; the Huntington Library, Swarthmore College and Stanford have the rest.)

Standing outside with Mary as she smoked and railed against do-nothing city officials when it came to women’s equality, she hooked many of us as a board member or donor. One did not say no to Mary’s eye-piercing persistence.

A widow who raised 7 children, she never got over her childhood frustration of being told she could not be a preacher like her father, nor pursue love of math as an engineer.  Girls did not do those things.  In middle age, she learned that women had pioneered these fields during her girlhood.  “I didn’t know there had been women astronomers or women engineers.  It’s as if I were in a forest, but didn’t know there were paths out of the forest.  I didn’t even know how to look for the paths. What if young women knew that women had climbed mountains, discovered comets, been artists & writers & musicians – & doctors, lawyers, merchants, preachers – that a trail had been blazed for them to follow?”

In the 1980s, with millions of girls still in that forest, not seeing themselves in public role models, Mary forged paths.  When she passed away in 1998, she left a small, growing organization, with a board of women determined to raise funds with concerts, meals at the Big Kitchen, donations and memberships. 

Professionalizing in 1999, WHRP’s first strategic planning session, led by its first Executive Director Mary Lou Sulentich, included supporting community members.  New exhibits followed—on, and off, site.  With money from the Sol Price City Heights Foundation, State grantors, and major gifts from Mary’s acquaintances. The WHRP moved to a larger space in Art Union, and with Bill Hawkins’ generous donations, we not only thrived, but grew.  His late wife, journalist Helen Hawkins, had, with Mary and others, co-founded the first local branch of National Organization for Women (and created undying support from Bill, who was at many meetings).  

By 2003, WHRP and partners had launched two induction ceremonies for the San Diego County Women’s Hall of Fame. Partnership has been the life’s blood of the Museum – and in this case, they were SDSU’s Women’s Studies Department, the County Commission on the Status of Women, and UCSD’s Women’s Center.  A museum renaming followed:  The Women’s History Museum and Educational Center. 

Olivia Puentes-Reynolds became Board President, but she had already made her mark.  While multicultural women’s history was at the heart of my learning and teaching for decades, I did not fully understand the concept of cultural competence until Olivia tutored the board and me. Since 1999, understanding women’s varied experiences, identities, and our need to recognize their intersections, became embedded in the Museum’s and Hall of Fame values.  Olivia had the chops to help us reflect them in everything we did, and some major exhibits are good examples:  

  • 1999: “A Peace for All” – Las Mujeres del Bario Logan (Chicana activists) and 20th-Century international peace activists. (Performances by original mujeres of the 1970 Chicano Park takeover inspired me to offer my students course credit for volunteering for Chicano Park Day.)  
  • Getting the most mileage for us:  the multiple-grant-funded traveling exhibit, 2003-04: “Women Who Dare:  Shaping the Americas,” Touring County libraries and civic venues, 8-foot pillars depicted 22 U.S. and Latin American women pathbreakers in “Art & Power”–women artist-activists,  and “Challenge & Action”–women political activists.  

People now coming to the museum, or learning of it, asked about San Diego women’s history.  We created a popular, permanent, multicultural exhibit,  “All Our Grandmothers:  Building San Diego – The Untold Story, 1880-1920.”

You may remember the Museum’s history at Liberty Station – a more visited and visible location than our humble but homey Golden Hills space. Ashley Gardner’s leadership helped make that move happen, and soon, a new name evolved:  “Women’s Museum of California.”

Today, with amazing staff, and a diverse board committed to educating, inspiring, and elevating the status of women, we now have two locations.  Our archives are at the San Diego History Center in Balboa Park.  Our Educational Center is back in a neighborhood – at Southeastern San Diego’s Jacobs Center.

Help us celebrate our 40th Anniversary.  Memorialize the path of this institution, to make it thrive and grow in the coming decades.  If you’re not already a member, become one – then you personally become a part of our history. https://www.womensmuseumca.org/membership

By Sue Gonda, Ph.D., Former Women’s Museum of California Board Present/current Secretary-Treasurer

All contributions and bequests are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by federal and state law. The Women’s Museum of California is a 501(c)(3) non-profit charitable corporation. Tax ID is 95-3893212.

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