When Mary Maschal was born in 1924, women had been able to vote for only four years. It was an entirely different era for women’s rights, one that Maschal would spend her later years chronicling, curating, and teaching. Through sheer will and perseverance she helped guide her hometown of San Diego to establish a museum dedicated to the historic accomplishments and contributions of women.
Maschal was a trailblazer from the start, running a successful handyman business at a time when women were all but absent from the world of construction and its trades. Maybe it was the circles she traveled in, not always generous to persons of her gender in those years, that inspired her to start collecting artifacts, memorabilia, vintage clothing, important books and documents – whatever she could get her hands on – to underscore her belief that all women can benefit from experiencing the accomplishments and contributions of those who came before them.
She created the first incarnation of a museum in her own living room, called the Women’s History Reclamation Project. Every room in her house was eventually filled with the evidence and ephemera of women’s history, so much stuff that in 1995 her supporters convinced her to open the house to the public for tours and exhibitions. Eventually the collection grew too big, so with a move to the Art Union Building in 1997 they were a full-fledged museum.
Mary died in 1998, but her collection and mission has lived on. With a name change to the Women’s History Museum of California, and one more move in 2012, they now have a permanent home at NTS Liberty Station, a former Naval training facility turned arts and culture center. In addition to the collections, the Museum maintains an extensive archive and library, hosts events and traveling exhibits, and sponsors art shows, performances, screenings, and educational programs for the community.
One of the archive’s prized possessions is California’s only known first edition of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s The History of Women’s Suffrage. For a woman like Mary Maschal, barely born into the age of women’s suffrage, that book may have been her own best teacher.