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Kristen Bell had no difficulty imagining what it would have been like for her as a young girl to visit an actual museum dedicated to showcasing the many historic accomplishments and significant contributions made by American women throughout the nation’s history.
“It would have been a game changer,” Bell told The Hollywood Reporter. “It would have seeped in at an early age, as opposed to having forced me to have complex conversations with the women in my life about the lack of representation I was seeing when I was older…. Seeing a museum like this, where representation is accurate and more balanced, would have been a game changer.”
Bell was among the honorees feted at the National Women’s History Museum’s Women Making History Awards at the Beverly Hilton on Saturday, a group that included her fellow actresses Kathy Bates and Gabrielle Union, as well as Black Lives Matter Global Network co-founder Patrisse Cullors. The organization and its event are centered around an ambitious and especially timely goal: the creation of a permanent, world-class women’s history museum on or near the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and there was a palpable energized feeling among the attendees that fulfilling that ambition was achievable, vital and very necessary.
When NWHM reached out to Bell to invite her to accept its honor for her activism and her public openness about raising her daughters, “I was like, ‘Wrong number,’’’ she laughed. “Because I don’t really know what I’m doing. I feel like every other woman, where I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just trying. But weirdly, I think that is a value to show. I’m not the most well-spoken person. If I am well-spoken it’s because I’ve really worked on what I want to say. Because normally I’m a bit of just a firecracker of nonsense. But it’s also choosing not to airbrush yourself. I’m gonna let people see my vulnerabilities and know, ‘Hey, I also don’t know what I’m doing, but what I am doing is trying.’”
Union, on the other hand, appreciated the recognition for her lengthy and increasing challenges to institutionalized limitations for women throughout her career. “I’ve been working my ass off, trying to fight for equality, trying to fight to make sure every woman’s voice is heard and there are real seats at this proverbial table,” Union told THR. “And then I’m like, ‘You know what? I don’t want to sit at your table if I’ve got to work that hard to have a seat at this jacked-up table that doesn’t really want me there. I’m gonna build a new house, with plenty of tables and plenty of chairs, and there’s gonna be a red carpet to welcome you in.’ And I’ve been screaming that from the rooftops for many, many years. To be awarded for that, thank you for seeing me and appreciating that I’ve been out here doing the work.”
She, too, could easily envision what a National Women’s History Museum could meant to woman, and particularly women who are even further disenfranchised due to their race, religion or sexuality. “They say the winners write history, but it’s really who gets there first writes it, and so many people are erased,” said Union. “And when you are erased, people think there’s less value, you’re less worthy, you’re less intelligent, you haven’t really contributed, when that’s not the case. And in the same way, we had to fight tooth and nail for the African American History Museum, the thought that this is even a fight is embarrassing. You are literally trying to erase the contributions of half the population, and we are here to say, ‘No longer. Not for one more day, will you erase us.’”
Cullors has certainly received her share of accolades for her activism on behalf of all people of color. But, she told THR, “I’ve never been honored for a women’s award before, so it just really shows what our movement has been able to do, and lifting up the women who have come before us, and the women who are coming after us.”
Women, she said, have been central to the Black Lives Matter movement, “the architects,” and she has a vision for where the cause goes in the heat of the country’s divisive cultural tumult. “Black Lives Matter is in such a critical moment where we get to see the last five years of work look like building black political power — it looks like Stacey Abrams in Georgia, who will hopefully be the first black woman governor, right? Looking like black women taking leadership across the country. I think in our future, Black Lives Matter is going to build a strong institution that we could see that similar to the NAACP or the ACLU. We’ll be here for hundreds of years.”
The message of Black Lives Matter and the content of Hollywood films and television have become deeply linked, added Cullors. “I think Black Lives Matter has been able to shift Hollywood to have a popular conversation about protests, about the human rights of black people, about police violence,” she said. “We’ve seen it time and time again on the screen. Let’s talk about Queen Sugar and their last season. They focus on police violence. They focused on incarceration issues. And I think that’s so powerful. That’s coming directly from our movement.”
“I’ve never heard about it before, and they asked me to come,” said Bates, who was soaking in the information the group had to share. “I’m learning about this organization. I was going to suggest to them that when young women come to the museum, they can give them an identity: if she was born in the ’20s, if she was born in the ’70s — so they can learn about women’s history, and they could find out, more importantly, what choices would have been available to them at that time, because that’s going to have an emotional impact on them. Like, ‘What? I can’t do such and such? What about…?’ because they have no concept of that now. That’s what I’d like to do there.”
Each of the honorees was introduced by an admiring professional colleague — in Bell’s case, it was her Frozen onscreen sister Idina Menzel; Union by her Being Mary Jane co-star Michael Ealy; Bates by her American Horror Story castmate and now director Sarah Paulson; and Cullors by Queen Sugar actress Dawn-Lyen Gardner — and each took part in individual onstage interviews by Glamour magazine Editor-in-Chief Samantha Barry.
Among the star attendees were Sara Rue, Yvette Nicole Brown, Arielle Kebbel, D’Arcy Carden, Laura Bell Bundy, Sandra Lee, Gabrielle Ruiz and One Day at a Time executive producer Gloria Calderon Kellett.
“A couple of years ago I got honored at this, and the energy in the room was truly so special that I walked up on stage and threw my script away,” said Sophia Bush, “I just was like, ‘No, this is the kind of place where you can really just speak off the cuff and from the heart,’ and I was learning in the room in real time. And when we’re looking at the way, even all these years later, how we’re making progress and the ways in which we aren’t, the irony that we’re having these conversations about women, about empowerment, about equality very publicly, but we still have disparity on boards. We still have hundreds of museums in Washington D.C., and not a single one dedicated to women.”
“Just last week the Texas school board voted to remove Hilary Clinton and Helen Keller from teaching in school, because they don’t think that their incredible contributions to this country are worth teaching students about,” Bush added, referring to the tentative decision by the state’s Board of Education a day earlier, ostensibly to streamline the required curriculum.
“They’re gonna focus on the Alamo, but not on the women who changed the world,” Bush continued. “So for all those naysayers out there who say, ‘Oh, you have equality already,’ now we don’t, and it’s really important to push for actual equality, not just conversations about equality.”
The female historical figures who inspired and enlightened them were on the minds of many of the attendees, and Bell offered a personal favorite. “Eleanor Roosevelt, for sure,” she said. “She has so many incredible quotes, but the one I live by is, ‘No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’ It is like a warm blanket over my life. I’m very small, so I feel inferior the moment I walk into a room, because everyone’s bigger than me. But I have to consent to feeling inferior. It’s been kind of my true north — and will definitely end up as a lower-back tattoo one day.”
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