SAN FRANCISCO — At 85 feet, so high is the stone pillar commemorating Admiral George Dewey’s victory in the Battle of Manila Bay that the depiction of the goddess Nike at the top is all but indiscernible to the skateboarders, tourists, and crowds of people waiting in line for the cable cars in Union Square below.
But the statue has another secret. The model for it was a larger-than-life daughter of immigrants named “Big Alma” de Bretteville Spreckels, who would go on to help establish San Francisco’s art and maritime museums.
For all of her impact on the city, Spreckels’s role was largely overlooked — until the local tourism agency launched a self-guided tour of local women’s history last year. It also includes the landmark Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, built with the bequest of a woman named Lili “Firebelle Lil” Coit, who gambled, smoked cigars, and wore men’s clothing.
The modest effort is among a growing number of ways that destinations and the tourism industry that serves them are acknowledging women’s long-neglected contributions, past and present.
One catalyst for this is the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. Another: This year’s 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. Tennessee, for example, the last state to ratify the amendment, has created a Woman Suffrage Heritage Trail.
Some historians say cultural shifts are also shining new light on real-life female superheroes — including the popularity in film of fictional ones. A new daily tour of historical figures from colonial times to the present is titled Badass Women of Philadelphia; a group called Museum Hack offers tours of museums by outside guides, including the Badass Bitches Tour of female artists in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
There’s yet another, much more practical reason for this new attention by tourism companies to women and their roles: increased demand from women, who, according to the George Washington School of Business, now make up more than two-thirds of travelers.
“The generation that is now spending money on travel has seen women accomplishing things, so it’s less surprising for them to want to recognize women,” said Shauna MacDonald, director of the Greater Philadelphia Women’s Studies Consortium and co-director of gender and women’s studies at Villanova University.
Museum Hack is even offering consulting services now to the museums through which it brings its renegade tours.
This formidable group of mobile women “is looking for empowering narratives about women that elevate their history and themselves,” said Rebecca Fisher, cofounder of Beyond the Bell Tours, which runs the Badass Women tour.
Such narratives have been surprisingly absent, Fisher found when she was an undergraduate helping a professor catalog historical monuments in Philadelphia. Of 300 public statues there, she said, 10 were of women, and six of those depicted figures such as Joan of Arc, who didn’t have any local relevance.
“That was the thing that pushed me over the edge,” said Fisher.
Proposed since 1996, a National Women’s History Museum has been stalled for more than 20 years, though a congressional commission set up in 2014 recommended a 10-year plan to slowly inch it forward. Even that was opposed by some conservatives, including then-congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who said it would “enshrine the radical feminist movement.”
And while the National Park Service preserved the Seneca Falls, N.Y., site of America’s first women’s rights commission, which occurred in 1848, the Women’s Rights National Historical Park that was finally created there took until 1980 to establish.
Both of these things are “a really big indicator of how far we have to go,” said Jennifer Taylor, an assistant professor of public history at Duquesne who specializes in both historical tours and women’s studies.
“The history’s there,” said Taylor. “It’s just hard to find. Why we’re only now beginning to see it on the landscape has to do with the way that women’s history has been covered.”
Namely, she and others said, by men.
“The most simple answer is that we live in a patriarchal society and women’s accomplishments are not seen,” MacDonald said.
Mary Evins, a historian at Middle Tennessee State University and a member of the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Centennial Collaborative, recalled a recent series of lectures about that state’s role in the passage of the 19th Amendment, at the end of which a male emeritus professor said “how nice it was that the ladies were starting to speak up about their story.”
“Cringe-worthy,” Evins said of this comment. “We’re glad folks who’ve apparently missed all this are now beginning to notice it themselves. Excellent. The centennial of the Nineteenth hopefully is awakening people’s peripheral vision. It’s a teaching moment we’re glad to utilize to our advantage. There’s money being funneled our way for this, atypically. So that’s why you’re seeing, or perhaps just now noticing, the women’s history sites, the walking tours, driving tours, and such.”
Many of these things are decidedly new, however.
Kentucky has also established a Votes for Women Trail to commemorate the 19th Amendment’s centennial, and there’s an online inventory of more than 1,000 sites related to this anniversary called the National Votes for Women Trail.
Intrepid Travel last year launched its Women’s Expeditions, led by women for women travelers to learn about women and their history and cultures worldwide; it added four new destinations this year, and now visits Jordan, Kenya, Nepal, Iran, Morocco, India, and Turkey. The company’s day-tour division, Urban Adventures, has a tour called Unsung Stories of Women in New York. Another tourism provider, STA Travel, offers excursions including Strong Women of the South and Mavens of Denver. A monthly Feminist Cambridge Walking Tour debuted in August and was almost immediately fully booked.
“I think you’re going to see more of these,” MacDonald said. “We’re at this nexus where everything is coming together.”
Still, she said, “We’re only beginning to tell those stories.”
Added Evins: “Do people pay enough attention? No. Is that changing? Maybe. Hopefully. It takes these bump-up moments. That’s what’s happening here.”
Back in San Francisco, where only two of the city’s 87 public statues represent real-life women, planning has begun on a monument to the poet Maya Angelou. In Pittsburgh, a statue of the composer Stephen Foster with a banjo-playing slave at his knee, which was removed last year, is to be replaced by a monument to a still-undetermined black woman.
Today, Fisher, in Philadelphia, said wryly, “People are looking to go a little bit further than just the forefathers.”
Jon Marcus can be reached at email@example.com.