In the Iowa statehouse, there’s this doll cabinet. Amid the political regalia surrounding it, the cabinet stands out, filled as it is with dozens of dolls, each with its hair immaculately styled, each dressed in a gorgeous gown, all bearing the exact same porcelain face.
The figurines reflect a tradition begun by former Iowa first lady Billie Ray in celebration of the state’s centennial in 1976. She wanted to honor Iowa’s past and future governors’ wives with commemorative dolls, molded in Ray’s own image. Each of Iowa’s 43 first ladies is represented, dressed in a Barbie-sized version of the first lady’s inaugural gown and identified (in most cases) with a small placard carrying the governor’s name — “Mrs. Robert Ray” or “Mrs. Samuel J. Kirkwood.” So in the same place where Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina were just furiously campaigning to become the first female President of the United States, several dozen women share the dubious honor of being distinguished solely by a hairstyle, a dress, and a man’s name.
I often wonder how that doll cabinet will honor Iowa’s first first spouse who isn’t white, or a woman. This hasn’t been a consideration previously; all the governors and their spouses so far have helpfully fit the pattern. But demography, along with a multi-generational pivot in American gender dynamics, have rendered that status quo shatteringly delicate. One day they’re either going to have to stuff the likeness of Mrs. Robert Ray into a man’s suit, paint that porcelain doll brown, or rethink the entire exercise.
That doll cabinet is already a museum piece, even if it doesn’t know it yet. You can look at it and see the era it represents becoming suddenly untenable. I’ve come to think of that type of moment — when you can mark the instant before and after something slips into history, just as it’s happening — as rare and intensely valuable.
A dozen years ago, Robin and I shared one of those moments. Over the course of a few weeks in early 2004, we came to realize that our then-present experience of media and technology was fast becoming an anachronism, and that there were a lot of people—journalists in particular—who weren’t aware of that. We imagined ourselves looking back on that era before tiny, powerful computers colonized every corner of the world, and marveling at how strange and foreign it would already seem just ten years later. We shaped these imaginings into a rough little movie that is still one of the most popular things I’ve ever had a hand in making, and I credit some significant part of its resonance to the way we flipped the lens — projecting not forward from our past experience, but backward from the future.
To know the future … that’s the dream, right? But it’s a dream that makes sense only if the future is merely revealed, rather than being constructed bit by bit from the traces of the present, which we still have the ability to shape. Let me argue instead for seeking future history — the ability to consider the present through the lens of the future, to find imminent anachronisms hidden in plain sight. What do we take for granted today that will come to seem remarkable tomorrow? What will the history books say about us?
A few months ago, my friends Andy, Amanda, and Amy, and I decided to build a weekend around these questions. And now I’m seeing future history everywhere.
Like all right-thinking people, I’ve been infected with Hamilton fever. The theme of the show that resonates most loudly is the obsession of all the central characters with their place in history. After one recent replay of the score, I found myself tearfully re-reading Washington’s farewell address, a message sent across the ages, to us. Of course, nearly every Presidential farewell has that time-capsule quality — it’s the last best chance for a President to spin his legacy. But fast-forward through more recent ones, and Washington’s stands out all the more. Other Presidents are aware of the watchful eyes of history, but they spend most of their parting speeches dwelling on the recent past — what they saw, what they did, why they did it. Consequently, moments in these speeches can seem parochial or short-sighted, just decades later. “There hasn’t been a failure of an insured bank in nearly 9 years,” Truman says. “The Persian Gulf is no longer a war zone,” Reagan says. We’re “on track to be debt-free by the end of the decade,” Clinton says.
Washington, though, scours his Presidency for lessons that would reverberate across centuries: Cherish your union, he tells us. “It is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize.”
It’s not just lofty Presidential speeches; tiny gestures can mark a break with the past. When Tom Vilsack ascended to the Iowa governor’s mansion, his wife Christie broke slightly with tradition: she elected to have her doll identified by her own name in the cabinet. “I’ve never called myself ‘Mrs. Tom Vilsack,’ ever,” she said. Iowa’s next first lady echoed Christie Vilsack’s choice; her doll is called “Mrs. Mari Culver.”
In 2012, Christie Vilsack tried to change another longstanding Iowa tradition: she ran for Congress. Not only had a woman never been governor of Iowa in 2012, no woman had ever represented the state in either the House or the Senate. “We really have a wonderful history,” the state’s Democratic Party chair said when Vilsack announced her exploratory committee. “With this one problem.”
Vilsack’s run failed; she was defeated by Steve King in 2012. But then something happened, just last year. A streak unbroken since Iowa entered the union in 1846 — nearly 170 years in which a long succession of men exclusively represented Iowa in Congress — ended. Joni Ernst, the daughter of another Mari Culver, became Iowa’s first ever Congresswoman. (Initially, I thought she was the daughter of the same Mari Culver who was Iowa’s first lady. But no, Joni’s mother is Marilyn Culver, not Mariclare Culver, so this post was wrong.)
For a weekend in Baltimore in April, we’re going to look for moments like this, and scour our own experiences for ideas and lessons that will endure. We’ll make a time capsule, and we’ll end with a prom; we couldn’t think of two better ways to bring a far-seeing lens to the present. It will be massive fun and I hope you join us if you can. But most of all, I want to know: What do you see around you today that will come to seem remarkable?