DALLAS – Virginia Whitehill, Activist and Grandmother: Jill, look at this. This is the woman who made - Grace Murray Hopper - made the modern computer possible.
Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 Reporter: When Virginia Whitehill takes her ten year old granddaughter Jill Abbey on an outing, she'll likely weave a history lesson into the fun. Whitehill is a long-time women's activist in Dallas, having served on the battle fronts for reproductive rights, the ERA, and family violence prevention. She's also on the advisory board for The Women's Museum and eager to show Jill and Jill's mother, Patti Whitehill, what years of fundraising and hard work have produced.
Virginia Whitehill: Oh, look, there's Babe Didrickson Zaharias, 1911-1956. A lot of people think she was the best all-around athlete of anybody, men or women.
Sprague: Ginny, Patti and Jill have walked up a wide, curving staircase at the entrance to the museum and are standing in front of one of its exhibits, "Unforgettable Women." Patti, a school teacher, and her fifth-grade daughter are looking at display cases filled with biographies and artifacts from some of the nation's most influential women, such as cosmetics queens Madam C.J. Walker and Mary Kay Ash.
Patti Whitehill: This woman's from Dallas.
Jill Abbey: She looks like it.
Patti Whitehill: Yeah, she was a working mother who figured out ways to have other working mothers have money. Mary Kay. So she figured out you could go to houses and sell makeup and you could be a working mother.
Virginia Whitehill: Oh! This is my hero. Alice Paul. My mother who was born in 1899 and lived to be 91; she got to visit Alice Paul's house, and Alice Paul is the woman who worked hardest of all to get the vote for women, 80 years ago this year. And my mother was very proud of the fact that she got to meet Alice Paul.
Abbey: She got to meet her?
Virginia Whitehill: Yes, and be in her house; and so you see you're connected to the fight for women's votes.
Patti Whitehill: And how did we get the vote, remember, we learned it last week?
Abbey: Uh, we won it?
Patti Whitehill: We won it, yes. That's right. We weren't given it. We won it.
Sprague: This is the kind of discussion museum officials hope their exhibits will prompt, because many of The Women's Museum exhibits are steeped in a rich traditional of oral history. But roughly half also incorporate cutting edge technology. Jacqueline Bell is the director of marketing for The Women's Museum.
Jacqueline Bell, Director of Marketing, The Women's Museum: I guess our underlying message to women is that technology is probably one of the best friends women have had. It has leveled the playing field in so many different areas. So when you come in, you have videos, you have interactive technology, you have kiosks, you have touch screens, you have computers driving the information. Sprague: Such as the "Words that Changed Our Lives" exhibit. A series of computer screens each displays more than a dozen words, like "love."
Bell: These are words that you can use. And you just press a word. Press any word.
Abbey: OK. Um, "Gender."
Jacqueline Bell: You have three women's names who have all written about gender. Select one of those.
Abbey: Anne Bradstreet.
Sprague: The computer screen tells Jill that Anne Bradstreet was a 17th-century English-born colonial poet.
Bell: Now, if you want to see her quote, it's flashing there where the red is, push that.
Sprague: A narrow, digital sign that reaches from the back of the computer up the wall toward the ceiling soon displays a quotation from the poet.
Virginia Whitehill (reading the quotation): "It is but vain unjustly to wage war. Man can do best and women know it well. Preeminence in each is yours. Yet grant some small acknowledgment of ours." Oh, she was trying to point out that women did a lot of good things and mostly they got ignored.
Sprague: The trio walks down a stairwell that also serves as an exhibit. "Women in Spirit" spotlights women religious leaders and leads into the downstairs rooms that cover women in sports, organized movements like the Girl Scouts, and the history of women's health issues. At the museum's "Dream Career Board," Jill used a computer touch screen to learn about different careers open to women.
Abbey: Fashion Model (laughs).
Sprague: The computer tells Jill some of the perks of her chosen profession. Abbey: Looking like a million bucks.
Sprague: And some of the pitfalls.
Abbey: Being over the hill while you're still in your 20s. The odds of hitting the big time. Waiting around. This thing's really cool.
Sprague: Preparing young women for their futures is a major goal of the Women's Museum. Its Institute for the Future will host a computer lab that teaches technology skills to both children and adults. And its interactive exhibit, "How I Did It," serves as a kind of digital mentor, where girls like Jill Abbey can use a touch screen computer to view videotaped recordings of accomplished women.
Abbey: Touch a photo to begin. Um, how about Nancy Brinker?
Sprague: Nancy Brinker is the founder of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.
Abbey: Why did you establish the Foundation?
[Sound of Nancy Brinker recording]
Bell: Oral history is such an important part and an important facet of women's history.
Sprague: Again, the Museum's Jacqueline Bell.
Bell: The stories have been passed from mother to daughter from grandmother to granddaughter from generation to successive generations. And this is our way of capturing those stories, of chronicling those stories or those histories.
Sprague: The Women's Museum gives its visitors the chance to write their own life stories into computer databases as they exit the museum. Those stories will become part of the museum's archive. Ten year old Jill Abbey used the opportunity to write her own personal reflections on the museum, as dictated to her mother.
Abbey: I'm glad that people - wait, wait - can finally recognize the women who made us - wait, wait - who we are today.
Sprague: This one hour tour left no time for several exhibits, but Jill Abbey, her mother Patti Whitehill, and her grandmother Virginia Whitehill all plan on making return visits to the museum. They call the museum a place whose time has come. And to keep the museum fresh and make room for the thousands of untold stories about women, officials plan to change many of the exhibits every few years. The Women's Museum: An Institute for the Future will open to the public tomorrow. For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.