Sisterly Love

Determination and a little Tupperware help create a museum honoring American women

Three years ago, Cathy Bonner stored her dream in a Tupperware container as she lugged it to prospective benefactors; next month, the 50-year-old Dallas native will swing open the doors of that fantasy: a women's history museum in a restored Fair Park building.

As board president and founder of what is officially--if a touch pretentiously--called The Women's Museum: An Institute to the Future, Bonner will oversee a $2 million annual budget and usher in an estimated 500,000 visitors who will come to see exhibits and interactive computer displays that tell the history and contributions of thousands of American women.

But behind the scenes is another, untold story of female achievement. It's about how Bonner raised $30 million to build the museum in just three years, finding support in conservative Dallas for an institution that will revere figures that make the Rush Limbaughs of the world shudder (former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jocelyn Elders and comedian Joan Rivers, for example).

Cathy Bonner had a plan and a cardboard model. They grew into a national museum.
Peter Calvin
Cathy Bonner had a plan and a cardboard model. They grew into a national museum.

Bonner and other Austin women concocted the idea of a national museum in 1997, and she soon heard of a potential site from the Friends of Fair Park, a group dedicated to preserving the Dallas historic district. The Coliseum building, a 90-year-old dilapidated city storage building, was "a real fixer-upper," Bonner says.

But Bonner, who graduated from Bryan Adams High School a few miles away, was enamored of the idea of saving a building and establishing a national museum in her native city. Besides, the building seemed predestined to be a women's museum. Above the front door it had a kitschy statue of a naked Venus rising from a cactus, put there during the 1936 Texas Centennial celebration as a salute to women pioneers.

Though she had no money, Bonner contacted New York architect Wendy Evans Joseph, who had designed the restoration at Ellis Island. Joseph agreed to complete the task without pay.

"I really believed in the idea of the project," Joseph says. "I really believed in the people involved."

Joseph created a model of the museum, which Bonner packed into her Tupperware container. "She told me she took it anywhere where she could get at least two people to sit down with her," Joseph recalls. The model was pretty much all she had when she met in September 1997 with Ed Whitacre, chief executive officer of SBC Communications Inc., the parent company of Southwestern Bell. Bonner had become friendly with the corporate chieftain when she served as executive director of the Texas Commerce Department under former Gov. Ann Richards. Whitacre was an ideal target. His corporation's foundation donates loads of money to various causes, and the company itself has a workforce that is 53 percent female.

From her corner, however, Bonner says, she had little to offer Whitacre--except her dream.

"It was pathetic," she recalls. "We had this little cardboard model. That was it."

It was enough. The SBC chief offered her a $10 million challenge grant, and with SBC's money leading the way, Bonner quickly raised another $20 million--of which 10 to 15 percent came from Dallas sources, including Texas Instruments, J.C. Penney Corporation, and TXU.

"If we hadn't had a good economy, it would have been harder to sell," Bonner concedes.

But Bonner must get some of the credit. She has never shied away from a challenge. She spent years in Austin establishing some of the first clinics for rape victims and shelters for battered women. She worked on Richards' unsuccessful re-election campaign, then started an Austin consulting firm, but she was looking for more inspiring work. "I decided to take a few years and do things that were important to enrich me as a person," Bonner told a Dallas Morning News reporter in 1997.

The museum opens September 29, the first day of the State Fair. Visitors will see much of Bonner's original concept. She had always wanted, for instance, to have a place to honor female comedians. At one of the museum's displays, visitors can view video clips of Lucille Ball, Gilda Radner, and Lily Tomlin, among others.

Using New York-based exhibit designers, Bonner and the other members of the museum's founding board searched Internet auction house eBay and other private and public collections to find artifacts. Visitors will see cinematic costume designer Edith Head's Oscar and Eleanor Roosevelt's luggage, as well as Amelia Earhart's flight bag.

The museum also will have a display of political correctness. The recorded voices serving as tour guides on the cell phones, for instance, belong to a racially balanced group of celebrities, including former Gov. Richards, Asian-American television anchorwoman Connie Chung, and black actor Danny Glover.

To determine which women would wind up on a list of 39 unforgettable women profiled in one of the museum's centerpiece displays, the museum administrators conducted a poll on their Internet site and heard advice from a board consisting of Eastern academics and bona fide Texans such as Laura Bush.

"We are looking for balance," says the museum's marketer, Jacqueline Bell. "We don't want it to be too New Yorky."

In cataloging the history of women, however, it is impossible to avoid some potentially controversial issues. The museum will extol the contributions of several modern women who have created headlines and controversy.

One banner, a museum administrative assistant says, was taken down from an exhibit because her bosses thought it might cause too much of a stir. The flag honored the Gorilla Girls, a feminist art troupe. Bell denies potential controversy prompted the removal. "The real reason had to do more with the way the flags were being displayed. A number of them were from art groups. We didn't want too many," she says.

Whatever the case, for Bonner, who has spent her professional life creating women's community organizations and working politically to advance women and family causes, the museum is the fulfillment of a dream. "It was an idea," she says, "and I couldn't quite get rid of it."

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