Feature

When Norine G. Johnson, PhD, was chosen as a member of an advisory board for the new women's history museum in Dallas, she wasn't sure what impact her contributions would have.

Museum officials chose her for her expertise on adolescent girls, but after supplying them with information, APA's new president didn't hear back from them for nearly a year. When she did, it was in the form of an invitation to the museum's gala opening Sept. 27.

"I had no real idea what I was going to see," Johnson says. "But when I walked into the museum, I had one of those moments where I said, 'It was all worth it.'"

The museum — called The Women's Museum: An Institute for the Future — is a high-tech, interactive and beautifully designed showcase of American women's contributions from before the time of the white settlers. It is the first museum with the history of women as a main focus, and has received considerable philanthropic support, including $3 million from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Conceived by Cathy Bonner, president of the board of the Austin, Texas-based advocacy organization Foundation for Women's Resources, the museum also has a mission of training at-risk adolescent girls to learn computer, math and science skills.

"Norine was chosen for her voice on how important it is for teen-agers to see themselves in this museum and in these exhibits," says Terren Baker, a principal in the New York design firm of Whirlwind & Co. Productions, which created all of the museum's exhibits and content.

"We felt they needed to see real women, kids with pimples, all of the things that really go into becoming a woman--not just the idealized notion of that. Norine's contributions really resonated with us."

As project consultant, Johnson pushed the main messages that emerged from the three-year APA task force on adolescent girls she co-chaired with Karen Zager, PhD: Valuing Strength and Valuing Diversity.

"At the first meeting, they said they wanted a museum where girls could learn the history of women and learn important technological skills to prepare for the future," Johnson says. "But the content they planned was all the negative messages to and about adolescents girls."

In fact, says Zager, she, Johnson and other members of the girls' task force underwent a similar metamorphosis during their time working together.

"A lot of the literature on adolescent girls paints them as pregnant, runaway drug users," Zager says.

The task force studied the issue in more depth, and determined there are great strengths in that population that need to be nurtured. The group published one book for educators and practitioners on their findings, "Beyond Appearances: A New Look at Adolescent Girls" (APA, 1999), edited by Johnson with Michael C. Roberts, PhD, and Judith Worell, PhD. Another book for the public that emerged from the research of the task force, written by Zager and Alice Rubenstein, EdD, is due out this year.

In fact, says Johnson, today's "millennium girls," as she calls them, seem to possess even more strengths than young women of previous generations.

"They're more confident, more persistent, firmer in their opinions and physically stronger than their predecessors," she believes.

So when Johnson walked up the stairs to the museum's second floor, she was doubly flabbergasted by what she saw.

"At the top of the stairs is a wonderful red wall with bright lettering," Johnson says. "It reads, 'This museum is dedicated to the history, strength and diversity of women.'"

Visit the website to enjoy an online tour of The Women's Museum.

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.