Meryl Streep arrives in movie theaters Friday with “The Iron Lady,” playing former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — the first female head of state in the Western world.
Women's place in history is a subject on Streep's mind of late. Her next off-screen project is the National Women's History Museum, an entity that exists so far only in cyberspace and that the actress is trying to get erected in brick and mortar on a site adjacent to the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
“History until the 20th century was written by one member of the human family and it wasn’t the mother,” Streep said in a mid-December interview in New York City with her “Iron Lady” director, Phyllida Lloyd. “It was dad. That’s who wrote history and ... what was important? Movements of armies, sovereignty of nations, all sorts of things. But women were there all along and they have incredible stories that we don’t know anything about.”
Financing for the $400-million museum is being raised privately — Streep donated $1 million to the endeavor — but congressional approval is required for the location, which would place the building near institutions such as the National Air and Space Museum, the Museum of the American Indian and the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial. A bill to allow the museum has passed committees in the House and the Senate and is awaiting action by the full legislative bodies.
“It’s a political football, I gather,” Streep said. “It’s a thing that everybody in Congress agrees with but then they attach it to something that no one agrees with .... It would be a beacon to women all over the world, because there really is no such museum. There are cottage museums — there’s a quilt museum, there’s a cowgirl museum.”
The normally private Streep has made herself the public face of the museum effort, hosting events and sending fundraising letters. Her participation in inspired, Streep said, by her grandmother, who lived before the passage of the 19th Amendment.
“My grandmother had three children in school and she would have to go to the golf course and get my grandfather off the ninth tee to make him go to the school board election, 'cause she was not allowed to vote,” Streep said. “She’s so vivid in my life. I think that that memory of when we were disenfranchised is important to learn.”
“There are so many great stories,” Streep said. “Every child knows the name of our first traitor, Benedict Arnold, but nobody knows the name of the first female soldier to take a bullet for the U.S., who enlisted under her dead brother’s name. Nobody knows Deborah Sampson’s name. That’s a great story. Or Elizabeth Freeman, who was the first slave to sue for her own freedom and won in Great Barrington, Mass. Every boy and girl should know these stories .... I hope we get it done.”
-- Rebecca Keegan
Photo: Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher and Anthony Head as Geoffrey Howe in "The Iron Lady." Credit: Alex Bailey / Pathe Productions/Weinstein Co.