In contemplating a trip to Val-Kill, Eleanor Roosevelt's charming cottage estate on the grounds of FDR's imposing Hyde Park, I was struck to discover that this was "the only National Historic Site dedicated to a First Lady." Really?
As we reach the end of Women’s History Month, it made me wonder about the kinds of museums out there, which are solely dedicated to prominent women in history. After a little investigating, I uncovered some interesting estate museums (what I like to call “she haunts”) that highlight women who are definitely worth visiting.
Eleanor Roosevelt, Val-Kill, Hyde Park, New York
In the verdant Hudson Valley, Val-Kill (a Dutch derivation of valley stream) sits at the heart of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's estate of Hyde Park. He had Stone Cottage built for Eleanor as a retreat from the bustling life as a president's wife (and his imposing mother's control of the main house). It is here that Eleanor found her voice, and expressed it in her many speeches and a syndicated daily newspaper column called "My Day." She addressed humanitarian issues and education (she had been a history teacher!) and didn't sidestep controversial topics, although she was originally quite shy. Val-Kill became her spine, the place she called home and where she came to reinvigorate. But she loved sharing it, too, so dignitaries of every stripe were invited here to unwind, from Nikita Khrushchev to JFK to Madam Chiang Kai-shek. Seeing her hairbrushes and the dishes she ate from allow you to walk in her shoes.
Georgia O'Keeffe, Abiquiu & Ghost Ranch, New Mexico Known as "the only museum in the world dedicated to an internationally known American woman artist," the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is a great destination where you can see the artist's lush flowers and vivid landscapes. But die-hard O’Keeffe fans should consider trekking out 50 miles north to Abiquiu, the 5000-square-foot home and studio where O’Keeffe relocated from New York in the mid-20th century. It is here in the Spanish Colonial-style ranch house where you can experience how she furnished her surroundings and conducted her daily life. Yes, some of her vibrant artwork is on display, as well her personal possessions and knick-knacks. Another 14-mile drive to Ghost Ranch will take you to her summer home, a more elevated region and vastly different landscape. Here you’ll find much of the territory that inspired her paintbrush. Maggie Walker, Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, Richmond, Virginia
In a casual walk along Leigh Street, you might gradually notice you've slipped from the early 21st century into the early 20th. The National Park Service has restored the houses around civil rights activist and entrepreneur Maggie Walker's own home as well, recreating the vibrant African-American neighborhood of the 1920s and '30s. Maggie's young life foreshadowed her commitments in adulthood -- born to a domestic worker who served as a female Union spy and a Caucasian father at the end of the Civil War, Maggie was steeped in the ideas of emancipation. She grew up to champion education for the African-American community and financial freedom, founding a bank which provided jobs for women other than in domestic service, as well as offering opportunities to grow and invest money. Her home reflected her values, playing host to the leading social activists of the time, such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes. Many personal items enliven the environment, like her cozy custom-made wheelchair that helped her be more mobile in dealing with diabetes, but the library is where the spirit of her social conscience is most present.
Annie Oakley, Garst Museum & Darke County Historical Society, Greenville, Ohio
In truth, the Annie Oakley house is in Dorchester Country, Maryland, but because Annie was born and died in Darke County, Ohio, the Garst Museum in Greenville claims her. Regardless, the house—built by her husband Frank Butler when she went into semi-retirement—has special features like a roof she could step out onto to shoot game on the river. Annie's sharpshooting abilities sprang from a harsh and impoverished childhood, and she is often remembered through the brash portrayal of Ethel Merman in the musical Annie Get Your Gun. But the Garst Museum delights in revealing Annie's "true personality," a sweet, petite woman with lustrous hair who took pleasure in the finer things like lace, silver, and elegant clothing. Clearly a complicated woman…but who can't feel the kinship in that?