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Saving history: MSU museum wants Women’s March items

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

East Lansing

Long before women took to the streets in Lansing, Detroit and cities around the globe last month to march in solidarity against President Donald Trump, Michigan State University historian Shirley Wajda could see something bigger bubbling up.

Wajda, a curator of history at the MSU Museum, saw the way students buzzed around campus before the Women’s March. She saw groups gathered in local yarn shops, knitting their hot pink protest hats.

“We knew something was going on and we thought it was going to be bigger than even what the media reported,” said Wadja.

It was. Now, Wajda wants to capture the history of the Women’s March on Washington. Wadja and the museum are collecting artifacts from the march, including hats, unique signs, digital photos and even personal stories about why people marched in Washington, Lansing, Detroit and elsewhere across Michigan.

While no exhibition is planned at this moment, Wajda said she believes that these mementos will one day be significant and the museum can be a gathering place for those who may want to study them down the road.

“We thought we need to mark this moment,” Wajda said. “... Everyone has an intellectual history. We figured we could be repository of what we call ‘stuff and stories.’ ”

Phoebe Hopps, Michigan coordinator for the Women’s March, is thrilled the museum is gathering march artifacts and recognizing “our movement as a piece of history.”

“We’d love to work with many other conservation efforts to help preserve this moment in time when women stood up and said ‘We’re not gonna take it anymore!’ ” said Hopps in an email.

Million of protesters marched Jan. 21 in Washington, Detroit, Lansing and other cities around the globe. Roughly 7,000 marched in Lansing alone.

Lisa DiRado of Northville marched in the nation’s capitol with a friend because she wanted to “reject the hate.” Arriving the day Trump was inaugurated, DiRado said there were no lines for security and remembers hoping there were at least as many people for the Women’s March.

She needn’t have worried. At 8:30 a.m. the next day, “you couldn’t get into the subway,” said DiRado, president of the Northville Democratic Club. “It was like sardines.”

The bright pink knit hats that many marchers wore — called pussy hats in reference to allegations during the campaign that Trump fondled women — and clever signs during the Women’s March on Washington are part of a long history of women in the United States using their hands to create crafts as a sign of political protest, Wadja said. Since our nation’s founding, women have long created everything from quilts to blankets to fight for various causes, from the abolition movement to temperance.

“We have a long history of women’s handcrafts,” Wajda said. “Think about American women during the American Revolution. They freely boycotted British goods, making homespun cloth instead. This has been going on for some time.”

A current exhibition at the MSU Museum, located in West Circle Drive just north of the university’s main library, also reflects that history.

“Quilted Conversations: Materializing Civil and Human Rights,” which opened in January on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and runs through July 9, features 16 provocative quilts used to tell various stories about our nation’s humans rights struggle. Drawn from the museum’s collection, the quilts touch on marriage equality, Holocaust survivors, the Flint foreclosure crisis, and a range of other civil and human rights issues.

“Quilt artists are uprooting traditional connotations of what a quilt is to make powerful statements about civil and human rights. We hope that viewing and reflecting on the quilts will prompt visitors to share and discuss —leading to ‘quilted conversations,’ ” said Mary Worrall, MSU Museum curator of cultural heritage, who organized the exhibition along with the MSU Museum’s Aleia Brown, in a press release.

As far as the Women’s March, Wajda said artifacts have already begin coming in, including digital photos and stories about why people marched. She said it will be important to have individual names attached with each march memento.

“You can put a pussy hat in your collection or a sign, but if you don’t know who made it, it starts losing meaning,” she said.

Wajda said she’s only received only a few angry phone calls about the museum’s plans to collect the artifacts. But she’s unswayed. She said she’s also open to collecting artifacts from the recent Right to Life march in Washington.

And while no exhibition is planned yet — “Exhibitions costs lots of money and they take some planning,” she said — they could be significant as the centennial of when women won the right to vote approaches in 2020. It’s about documenting “this historic event for future generations.”

(313) 223-4686

Twitter: @mfeighan

Women’s March


To donate your Women’s March mementos to the MSU Museum, contact curator Shirley Wadja at (517) 432-4582 or The museum is collecting stories, images and other items related to the women’s marches in Washington, Lansing, Detroit and other locations in Michigan.