Mistakes Prevented; Collective Wisdom Prevailing

Photo: Den Harrson _2hnng0havY UnSplash

Each year, The Washington Post proudly announces a time that it was wrong in the past — and celebrates the fact that a different viewpoint prevailed.

This year, the subject of such gratitude is the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal. It’s been 50 years since President Nixon designated the canal as a national historical park. Its preservation was the result of the work of a wide sweep of Americans who came together to protect the canal’s legacy and beauty.

Saving the treasure

In the 1950s, planners proposed paving over the canal, but a coalition of citizens answered Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas’ call to action and saved the storied waterway. The Washington Post at first supported the paving — until Douglas wrote a letter to the newspaper, offering the challenge to hike with him over the entire length of the canal.

Douglas assumed only a handful of people would join in the 184.5-mile trek from Cumberland, Maryland, to Washington. He was wrong. A growing throng of people, both men and women — from journalists and scientists to historians and nature lovers — wove their way into the collective journey.

In the 1950s, the mix of those hiking with Douglas would have looked like a cliche, straight from Central Casting. Today, however, we see this diverse group for what it truly is: Americans united in a shared love of one of our most treasured resources.

Such diversity of support made Douglas’s quest all the more powerful.

As the National Park Service (NPS) later said, “That was why it was a big news story. Wire services spread word of the hike to thousands of newspapers across the country. Time magazine ran a story. Movie theaters showed a newsreel of the hike. School children and townspeople shouted their support as the group passed by their towns. “

Preserving and persevering

While Justice Douglas was the headliner for an event that changed the canal’s course in history, lesser-known advocates, many of them women, have been the force behind safeguarding other national treasures that are now in the care of the NPS.

For example, another Douglas — journalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas — saved the Everglades in south Florida from efforts to drain the wetland and reclaim it for development.

“It takes people who are aware of the past to make sure that it doesn’t get repeated in the future.”

  • Sue Kunitomi Embrey, Chair, Manzanar Committee

Community activists Maggie Lena Walker and Mary McLeod Bethune worked tirelessly to preserve the Washington, DC, home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

NPS ranger Betty Reid Soskin — who at age 99 is the longest-serving U.S. park ranger — was the guiding force behind the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California.

Educator Sue Kunitomi Embrey advocated for the Manzanar National Historic Site in Independence, California, which retells the stories of the WWII Japanese American incarceration camps. “It takes people who are aware of the past to make sure that it doesn’t get repeated in the future,” she said.

Heading down the path

Since its founding in 1916, the NPS has employed far more men than women. Yet in recent years, the agency has moved slowly forward on the path to 50/50, achieving in 2020 an all-time high of almost 38 percent women. Progress, for sure, but miles yet to hike to create an evenly balanced workforce.

At the Women’s Campaign Fund, as we move toward our goal of #5050x2028 — roughly half women and half men in elected office nationwide — we look forward to expanding our nation’s capacity to succeed in all that needs to be done.

Like the efforts to save the C&O Canal, our National Parks are something we do together to include all of us, for the benefit of all of us. They become a testament to our collective power. To shout our support for what’s right. To prevent future mistakes. To let our shared wisdom prevail.

©2021 Women’s Campaign Fund





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