Crusaders for a new National Women’s History Museum, from left: NWHM president Joan Wages, Madeleine Albright, Senator Susan Collins, Senator Barbara Mikulski, Barbara Bush (seated on ground), Representative Carolyn Maloney, Patricia Nixon Cox, Dr. Maya Angelou, Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Streep
In the current financial climate, the ambition to help build a museum from scratch in order to fix the female place in American history may seem less than pressing. Not to Streep. She says it’s extremely important symbolically to tell the story that hasn’t been told “because our history was written by the other team, basically. For instance,” she says, forking at a bread-crumbed oyster, “we are taught about Benedict Arnold, the first traitor in America, but I’ve never heard—until I went onto the museum Web site—about Deborah Sampson, the first woman to take a bullet for her nation. She was 21 years old in the Revolutionary War. She enlisted on the American side under a man’s name, wore boys’ clothing, was cut with a British saber across her forehead, and took a musket ball in her thigh.” She’s a good storyteller, with a warm, urgent voice. “And her compatriots carried her six miles to the doctor’s, and he stitched up her head and she wouldn’t let him take her pants off—because he would discover she was a woman!” So did she die of her wound? “No—she was very good with her needle, so she cut the musket ball out and sewed her own leg up and served another eighteen months. In 1783 she was discharged, went home and had three children.” Sampson was granted £34 by the state of Massachusetts for exhibiting “an extraordinary instance of feminine heroism by discharging the duties of a faithful, gallant soldier, and at the same time preserving the virtue and chastity of her sex unsuspected and unblemished.” Amazing story. “And I am 60 years old and I learn this story,” says Streep. “I should have learned that story in the fourth grade. Because it helps you as a child to know that it is not just Paul Revere riding a horse and calling, ‘The British are coming, the British are coming.’ It’s not just Benjamin Franklin and George Washington and the battles won, it’s the bravery of all these people that are undiscovered, unknown.” She says that since women are great diarists, there is a huge cache of information that just hasn’t made it into the history books or into the halls of importance (a wonderful phrase I never heard before).