Minutes of the July 16, 1998 Commission Meeting

The first meeting of the President's Commission on the Celebration of Women in American History was held at 2:00 P.M. on July 16, 1998 at the Ontario County Court House in Canandaigua, New York.

In accordance with Public Law 92-463 as amended, this meeting was open to the public and members of the public were present.

Note: The night before the meeting, each member present viewed a videotape produced by the General Services Administration explaining various regulations and responsibilities that apply to members of a Federal Advisory Committee.


Commission Members Present

Ann Lewis, Co-Chair
Beth Newburger, Co-Chair and Federal Representative

Dr. Johnetta Cole
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt
Ellen Ochoa
LaDonna Harris
Barbara Goldsmith

In addition to members of the public, Martha Davis from the General Services Administration and Ruby Shamir from the White House staffed the meeting.

Call To Order
Ann Lewis, Commission co-chair and White House Communications Director, called the meeting to order and introduced Ellen Polimeni, Mayor of Canandaigua.

Opening Remarks
Mayor Polimeni welcomed the Commission to the historic city and courthouse of Canandaigua. The Mayor then applauded the group for the work they were initiating and gave them Canandaigua souvenirs.

Introduction and Statement of Purpose and Goals
Ann Lewis began by noting that the announcement of the Commission was sent out from China; the reason for this is that the President was traveling then through China, but Ms. Lewis pointed out that symbolically it reflected a growing women's community and the increasing importance of women's issues in the global community.

Ms. Lewis then went on to define the role of the Commission as developing ways to best acknowledge the role of women in American history, noting that the Commission will present the President with a report in March 1999, Women's History Month.

Ms. Lewis spoke of the aims of the Commission as being twofold:

Ms. Lewis began by noting that the Millenium Program was established with the idea of honoring the past and imagining the future, representing, what President Clinton has called, two sides of the same coin. Given that the United States is a country that is always in the process of becoming, we cannot progress further, without knowing whence we have come. Our knowledge of history is uneven, and part of the work of this Commission is to develop ways to chronicle a more truthful history.

When the women of Seneca Falls called for equal rights for women, they based their Declaration of Sentiments on the Declaration of Independence, indicating that the ideals upon which this nation was founded represent the model to which we must aspire and contrast our true condition. In the case of women, if they are not implicitly included, they are explicitly denied. Only a history which is inclusive can be true.

A second point that Ms. Lewis made was regarding heroes. She said that we want our children to have heroes whose paths they feel able to follow.

Ms. Lewis noted that as we move towards the Millennium, people are thinking more and more about our history. The Commission ought to be thinking of ways to make history accessible and interesting. Some have had the idea of building a museum in Washington D.C.; others have been seeking and continue to seek different ways of celebrating women's history. This Commission ought to be a clearinghouse of sorts for that information.

Commission Members
At this point, each member of the Commission present spoke for approximately 5-10 minutes each.

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt
Ms. Roosevelt focused on "unpacking" what it means to be a hero. She said that history is the story of people's lives, practices, and customs, but that it is also a part of our imagination. How the Commission focuses on the things that women have done can have a far-reaching effect on men and women and girls and boys.

Ms. Roosevelt continued by saying that the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is a vital issue; we need to take the chance to get it ratified by the millennium as it is an affirmation of who we are as Americans. We now have the opportunity to take the women's movement, which began with grand intentions, to the international arena.

Dr. Johnetta Cole
Dr. Cole identified two major elements that need to be in place as the Commission embarks upon the task of acknowledging the roles of women in American history:

First, Dr. Cole said that the role of teaching and learning history is to give people a map of where they have been so that they can know where they are and help determine where they are going. Americans ought to have an honest history that reflects the lives and experiences of the many players of history, but one that also acknowledges the contradictions in the lives of many of the heroes.

Using history as the launching pad, the Commission's recommendations to the President ought to include real life stories. The Commission should consider the building of monuments, but should also incorporate the living testimony on the history of women. Her-story must be as essential as reading, writing and arithmetic to every boy and girl so that heroes and sheroes can be established.

Dr. Cole also wanted the group to make sure that the heroes it brings to life are not only extraordinary people. Incorporated in the new history/herstory we teach, there needs also to be the struggle of the ordinary, hardworking people that speak to the multi-faceted roles that women have held in society. The women's rights convention of 1848 involved mainly women from a certain community, but they also drew heavily on the values held by many others, such as Native Americans. In this nation's enormous diversity is its history and its great strength.

LaDonna Harris
Ms. Harris voiced her gladness at the inclusion of a Native American voice in the process this Commission is about to undertake. There are a number of issues she thinks the Commission must address and try to resolve.

Ms. Harris wanted to ensure that whatever material the Commission gathers can be used as accredited material, and therefore provide a forum of sorts for more work by women historians and professionals.

She said the great value of the work of this Commission is that it will give people the opportunity to find themselves, their place and their role models in American history. The Commission needs to incorporate women's history activities on local and state levels, including tribal governments.

Ellen Ochoa
Ms. Ochoa raised a number of issues that she felt the Commission ought to cover.

In Ms. Ochoa's assessment, part of the reason for the holes in our understanding of history can be attributed to a limited understanding of courage, which is traditionally defined as fighting wars with the full support of governments and peers, or as flying into space with a team of professionals and the support of the American people (as Ms Ochoa does). The women who signed the Declaration of Sentiments did so without the support of their communities and peers. Rather they were harshly and personally criticized for their work, and that is truly courageous; standing up for beliefs in equality in the face of an unsupportive public. Perhaps the Declaration of Independence should be taught alongside the Declaration of Sentiments. Ms. Ochoa would like to see this Commission broaden our understanding of courage.

Ms. Ochoa hopes that the inclusion of the science and technological community to this sort of project will open both the scientific and women's communities to each other.

Ms. Ochoa believes that the establishment of a women's history museum in Washington D.C. would be an important step towards promoting the visibility of women's history, but made clear that the Commission ought to focus on a number of ideas as well. Not only do we need to create new women's history institutions, but this Commission also needs to address the institutions that historically have deliberately excluded women from certain industries and processes.

Barbara Goldsmith
Ms. Goldsmith pointed out that Mrs. Clinton's speech would go down in history as one of the most daring, forward looking speeches of our time. Women's history is essential and is a history of who we were yesterday and who we are today.

The mythic figures of our culture are tough men, but women are absent from our collective history. Ms. Goldsmith named a number of women whose marks on history are extraordinary, but whose names are unknown to most Americans. These women were reviled and criticized, but they were strong. We need to strengthen and empower women with stories of their history. Women can do men's work brilliantly, and have in times of crisis. Ultimately, opportunities have been taken away from women, and their choices limited, but women need the empowerment of their stories for strength.

Additionally, Ms. Goldsmith pointed out that because the notion of celebrity has replaced that of the hero, there is no place for the role model to arise. Ms. Goldsmith suggested the establishment of a center that could bring together various organizations and foundations that support women.

Ms. Goldsmith would also like to see the Commission develop a white paper for libraries and museums that would help those institutions develop guides and tours of women's history to make the discipline more accessible. This would also give it a human touch. She then reminded the group of the words of Frederick Douglass: agitate agitate, agitate.

Beth Newburger
Ms. Newburger introduced herself as the federal representative of the Commission. She commented on one major issue regarding the focus of the Commission. She noted that her own female role models were in her family, and wanted to make sure that the commission resolve whether or not it focuses on chronicling the work of women or on certain women in particular.

At this point in the meeting, Co-Chair Ann Lewis opened the meeting to public comment.

Members of the Public

Mayor Polimeni
Mayor Polimeni is a school principal as well as being the Mayor of Canandaigua. She wanted to make sure that as the Commission contemplates recommendations, it also makes special effort to focus on adolescent girls. She mentioned a mentoring program that is run in her community called "Expanding Your Horizons" that helps make pre-adolescents aware of the opportunities open to them.

Hal Barett
Mr. Barett commented on the fact that he is supportive of women's issues, and that he has seen his daughter lose her job to a man.

Sandra Frankel
Ms. Frankel is the Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor, and is currently serving as Supervisor of the town of Brighton. She wanted to note how important it is to be pro-active in teaching girls about the history of women. She concurred with the First Lady's speech that there is much work left to be done. Ms. Frankel also said that it is so important to teach girls and boys the significance of political activity and civics. Finally, she wanted to make sure that the work of the Commission reaches the local level as well as the national level.

Dorothy Eagan
Ms. Eagan said that her strong family role models helped her develop the attitude that she could achieve anything. She noted that few girls have that, and that the Commission ought to focus on young girls. She went on to say that in her early years she had a bad husband, and who she had to put aside.

Future Business

Ms. Lewis briefed the group on ideas for future work, noting that with the use of the Internet there is greater ability to get more information than ever before to young people. Ms. Lewis suggested these responsibilities include:

  • Inventory of federal government women's history resources
  • State by state inventory of local and state government women's history resources
  • Keeping diversity in mind
  • Inventory of academic institutions women's history resources
  • Inventory of national organizations women's history resources
  • Developing media and business interest and ties in the area of women's history

Ms. Lewis suggested that means of amplification should include the Internet, and letters to organizations. She stated that the Commission could function as the "eyes and ears" of potential programs, and also as a means of promotion of programs that are functioning well.

This listing engendered conversation about other options as well. Ms. Ochoa suggested that the Commission get in touch with the people developing a Women's History Museum in Dallas, TX. Ms. Goldsmith suggested that we initiate contact with libraries, museums and other educational facilities with letters of introduction. Dr. Cole cautioned that the Commission should not be thought of or seen as experts, rather that it be used as a resource or clearinghouse for information and testimonials, and that the group needs to strike a balance between the two.

In a discussion of how to go about reaching people with this information, Ms. Harris suggested that the Commission bring its discussions to localities. She particularly praised the idea of setting up trails in local areas that give life to women's history. Ms. Goldsmith cautioned that tour-type programs need to be well researched and guided, so that they would really be enriching.

Ms. Newburger suggested that the Commission could reach professionals through their work associations, but that we seek to contact people who work in the home through organizations such as the Parent-Teacher Association. Dr. Cole suggested that the most wide-ranging way of reaching people is through video, and that the Commission ought to consider producing one.

At this point, two more members of the public spoke:

Mary Ruthsdotter
Ms. Ruthsdotter is a representative from the National Women's History Project based in San Francisco, CA. She clarified for the group the many resources and services they would be glad to make available to the Commission (and that are currently available to the public) including teacher training courses, academic conferences, videos, posters, speeches, presentations to federal workers, and a heavily trafficked web site (on which they would be pleased to give the Commission a page).

Heather Williams
Ms. Williams is 16 years old and told the group that in her U.S. History class there was very little information about women. Further, she spoke of a teacher who said that decaying American morality is attributable to women being in the workplace. She said that this caused her to believe that the Commission ought to focus its work and the information it produces on the schools because young girls and boys do not know their history.

Ann Lewis thanked Ms. Williams and the other members of the public for speaking, and proceeded to open discussion on the last item of the agenda, setting up upcoming meetings.

After some discussion, the dates tentatively agreed upon for the next meetings are as follows:

  • September 24-25 in Albuquerque, New Mexico
  • November 13 in Washington, DC
  • January in Florida

Chairperson's Summary
In summation, Ms. Lewis reiterated that the Commission continue to have a national focus, while heeding local experiences; that it should center on how and what women have achieved throughout history and in their daily lives; and that the Commission must keep in mind how its work will ultimately effect a generation of younger women.

The meeting adjourned at 4:00 p.m.


I hereby certify to the best of my knowledge, the foregoing minutes are accurate and complete

Ann Lewis
Commission on the Celebration of Women in American History

Beth Newburger
Commission on the Celebration of Women in American History

Ruby Shamir
Staff Assistant Commission on the Celebration of Women in American History

Return to the Women's History Home Page

Martha Davis can be contacted by e-mail at or by phone at (202)501-0705

Minutes to other Commission Meetings:

Minutes of the September 25, 1998 meeting

Minutes of the October 14, 1998 meeting

Minutes of the October 19-20, 1998 meeting

Minutes of the first day of the November 12-13, 1998 meeting

Minutes of the second day of the November 12-13, 1998 meeting

Minutes of the January 18, 2000 meeting