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Celebrating DC’s HERstory: A Tour of Her Own

A Tour of Her Own (TOHO) has a lot to celebrate. Since 2018, founder and president Kaitlin Calogera and her team have been exploring the history of women in the nation’s capital and bringing those stories to light for both locals and visitors.

As Calogera notes, “This city is more than statues of men on horses and white marble monuments honoring presidents. Our tours prove that women built America’s past, even though they are less represented in public spaces and their stories are often overlooked.”

The group recently commemorated the end of a successful season with a VIP bus tour called “HERstorical Places and Feminist Spaces” and I was lucky enough to be invited. The tour, which rolled through all four quadrants of DC, delivered the full flavor of the nation’s capital and also showcased the unique expertise of the TOHO guides.

The tour began at Dumbarton House with a walk to the nearby cemetery of the Female Union Band Society, which was established in 1842 by African American and Native American women to insure funerals and resting places for all its members.

Then it was onto the coach for a swing through Georgetown narrated by TOHO vice president Rebecca Grawl, who regaled us with tales of notable women such as artists Alice Pike Barney and Alma Thomas, as well as the often rebellious heiresses who once inhabited the mansions along Embassy Row.

Participants were able to catch a glimpse of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg mural at the Flock DC building on U Street before stopping off for a close-up look at the Alpha Kappa Alpha sisterhood mural in Columbia Heights, which features several of the “Twenty Pearls” who founded the service organization. Back on the bus, tour guide Lindsey Horn delivered an impassioned history of Ida B. Wells before the group disembarked to view the statue in front of the school that is named after the renowned journalist and civil rights activist.

The bus drove past the Bené Millinery store owned by Vanilla Beane, where a floral arrangement on the door honored “DC’s Hat Lady,” who died recently at the age of 101. En route to the next stop—past Howard University and through LeDroit Park—guide Meghan Hanson took the mic and described the significance of women in the workforce pre-WWII and how they came to be employed in department stores such as Morton’s in downtown DC, which was the first to allow African Americans access to dressing rooms.

The TOHO team gathers around the statue of Ida B. Wells outside her eponymous school in Northwest: (l to r) Buck Johnson, Lauri Williamson, Dilcia Stephens, Kaitlin Calogera, Meghan Hanson, Lindsey Horn, and Rebecca Grawl
A massive portrait of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, made almost entirely of tampons, dominates the lobby of Hotel Zena, a female-friendly hotel in downtown DC.

After a break at the woman-designed Hotel Zena—where we admired the artwork in the lobby, including a portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg made almost entirely of tampons—Grawl entertained us on our route through downtown with stories about the call boxes that dot the urban landscape.

Many of these art installation honor local women, such as Flora Molton, a blues musician who busked on DC streets for more than 20 years. One apocryphal story about her has it that the Rolling Stones, in town for a concert, heard her and invited her to their hotel room for a jam session. Grawl cautiously termed the tale a legend, but Molton’s great grandniece, who was on the bus, confirmed that it was, indeed, true.

Our final stop was in Anacostia at the Women’s Suffrage Mural named for Zitkala-Ŝa, a Native American activist known as Red Bird. On the way there, guide Buck Johnson edified us with stories about local sculpture, both of and by women. Johnson, who takes a lot of good-natured ribbing from his female colleagues (whom he called “inspiring”), leads tours of historic statuary at the US Capitol and at military sites in Arlington.

While the VIP bus tour is not on TOHO’s regular roster, many of the sites are included in their regular offerings. The group recently announced their 2023 line-up of more than two dozen walking and virtual tours as well as a new virtual book club hosted by Calogera and Grawl, co-authors of “111 Places in Women’s History That You Must Not Miss.”

The scheduled walking tours range from the downtown call boxes to portraits at the National Gallery and sites relating to notable women on the National Mall and Capitol Hill. Virtual tours  provide in-depth looks at some intriguing-sounding topics: “Hookers, Healers and Heroines,” “Women and Art in the Gilded Age,” “Hidden History of the First Ladies,” and “Department Stores: A Feminine Oasis.” Or you can create your own tour based on the sites and stories that Calogera and Grawl share in their book.

Calogera encourages everyone to learn more about women’s history in the nation’s capital. “We’re set up so that tourists can get a virtual look into DC life while local Washingtonians are offered a fresh perspective of their city neighborhoods as seen through a feminist lens.” For more information on the 2023 programs or to purchase a TOHO membership or the guide book, visit www.atourofherown.com.

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