Many people waiting in line to see the nation’s founding documents at the National Archives building in Washington D.C.  miss the Archives’ amazing museum exhibits located below the famous rotunda (of National Treasure fame).  A few months back I went to see “Spirited Republic: Alcohol in American History” and in the process also saw “Records of Rights.”  I will admit this latter exhibition was much more interesting.  As the exhibit website explains:

The rights and freedoms embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights did not initially apply to all Americans. Martin Luther King, Jr. described them as “a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” For generations, various groups have struggled to “cash that check.” “Records of Rights” showcases documents from the holdings of the National Archives to illustrate how Americans have endeavored to define, secure, and protect their rights.

While the exhibition is billed in a positive light — questing for equal rights — it mostly made me depressed.  The well-curated exhibit did an excellent job demonstrating how we’ve denied rights to a sobering list of groups throughout our nation’s history: Blacks, Native Peoples, Women, Immigrants, the LGBT community.  In short, we’ve been nasty to a lot of people and in many ways still are.

I was perhaps most surprised by the women’s section: Remembering the Ladies.  As a writer for this most excellent feminist blog, I though I was tolerably well educated in the American woman’s struggle.  Well, I was wrong.

For example, did you know that until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, financial institutions could deny women credit unless they had their husbands’ permission?  Our grandmothers were denied credit cards and loans unless our grandfathers gave them permission slips.  My brain has struggled with this concept ever since I left the exhibit.  I had also never heard of the Equal Rights Amendment. Apparently my knowledge of landmark 1970’s legislation is embarrassingly thin.

Thanks to this excellent exhibit, I want to learn more about the realities my grandmothers faced and hopefully bridge the experience gap between our generation and theirs.  This interest has only deepened as I’ve heard Gloria Steinem bring this material back into the public consciousness on her recent book tour.

As far as I can tell, Records of Rights is a permanent (and free) exhibit and I definitely recommend a visit if you are ever in the District.  In the meant time they also have an excellent interactive website that’s worth a look.