Why Women's History Month?

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Open Democracy

Why Women's History Month?

“Everything that explains the world has in fact explained a world that does not exist, a world in which men are at the center of the human enterprise and women are at the margin "helping" them. Such a world does not exist —never has” —Gerda Lerner

Aside from the Republican’s relentless War on Women, let me offer you another reason why even one token month is still necessary to America’s political culture.

Woman smiling

I’ve just finished reading a book titled The Season of the Witch, written by David Talbot, who founded Salon.com in 1995, the first web magazine in the United States, known for breaking investigative journalistic stories. The book is an evocative political, social and cultural history of San Francisco from the late 1950s through the early 1970s. Since he dealt with every trend and movement, often in overheated prose, I kept waiting—and waiting--for him to describe the sudden explosion of the women’s liberation movement.

Astonishingly, Talbot didn’t even write one paragraph about the women’s movement, which certainly transformed American political and social culture more profoundly than did the two chapters he devotes to the San Francisco 49ers football team.

Did his publisher tell him that half the population was dispensable? Did his agent convince him that including feminism would diminish the appeal and profits? Is he just ignorant?

This is just one example why we need Women’s History Month in the United States. It’s to prevent students, teachers, intellectuals and writers from forgetting about half its population.

The origins of this month reflect an era in which the grassroots efforts of a few prescient individuals created a national month dedicated to informing the public about women’s lives. It was during the late 1970s when a growing number of women, grasping the subordination of women in the present, began to wonder about what women did in the past. The idea of “women history” was still very new, and yet a group of women on the Sonoma County (California) Commission on the Status of Women initiated a "Women's History Week" celebration for 1978.

Meanwhile, on the East Coast, the eminent historian Gerda Lerner, along with other historians, created a Women’s History Institute, during the summer of 1979, at Sarah Lawrence College.

From all over the country Lerner brought together feminist leaders and Molly Murphy MacGregor from the Sonoma Country California group just happened to be one of them. From her they learned what women in Sonoma County had been doing to publicize women’s past. They decided that their summer would be to create a country-wide "National Women's History Week".

Woman smiling
They chose March 8th, International Women’s Day, which was established in the United States in 1911 as a day to celebrate women workers and was then commemorated in the Soviet Union and its eastern bloc countries for decades.

The idea of celebrating—and discovering - women’s past quickly spread around the country. As the idea of a women’s history week gained broader publicity, state departments of education encouraged teachers to integrate women into the history curriculum. Within a few years, thousands of schools and communities were celebrating National Women's History Week, supported and encouraged by resolutions from governors, city councils, and school boards. 

In February 1980, President Jimmy Carter issued the first Presidential Proclamation, declaring the Week of March 8th 1980 as National Women's History Week. Meanwhile, Representative Barbara Mikulski and Senator Orrin Hatch co-sponsored a joint bipartisan Congressional Resolution for National Women's History Week in 1981.

In the wake of passionate lobbying by the  National Women's History Project in Sonoma Country, Congress finally declared the entire month of March 1987 as National Women's History Month. And so it has remained.

But did it change anything? Well, yes and no. Many professional historians still ignored—and still ignore--the deluge of superb research that hundreds of distinguished feminist scholars have published. One well-known male historian, a receiver of the Pulitzer Prize, told me in 1989 that the women’s movement didn’t belong in a film about the 1960s. (The National Organization for Women was founded in 1966 and women’s liberation groups began sprouting around the country in 1967.) Yet another historian taught an entire course on labor history in the 1980s without mentioning women workers. Still another historian told me it was too difficult to talk about women in his otherwise excellent course in labor history. (Imagine if I had found men “too difficult” to discuss in all my courses.)

Nevertheless, some history education began to change. Girls began to learn fthat women could be brave and how they had used their collective power to break one barrier after another. They learned, for example, about women who had flown airplanes during World War II, and who had built the war ships that fought fascism during that war.  They learned about Harriet Tubman, a former slave who repeatedly returned to the South to free dozens of slaves; Jane Addams who sought to end all wars by creating the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom; Florence Kelley who launched a consumer campaign to improve women’s working conditions, all the great jazz singers and athletes who transformed music, the arts, and my personal hero, and my personal hero, Billie Jean King, who championed the recognition of women’s tennis.

Woman playing tennis

Most importantly they learned that women had been activists and had created powerful and effective social movements. They had organized and petitioned against slavery, and, without benefit of the vote, they had fought wife beating by drunken husbands, created parks and kindergartens for children, fought municipal crime and corruption, organized to end child labor, created settlement houses to educate newly arrived immigrants, fought against nuclear bombs, for civil rights, and against the War in Vietnam.

Labor history—which had been taught for decades, without noting that women had always worked, suddenly included teachers, nurses, domestics, caretakers, laundresses, waitresses, mothers, and textile and agricultural workers. A whole generation of little girls learned the lyrics of the song, “Free to Be Me and You” which taught them that they could be anything they wanted to be.

Fast forward to 2014 and one has to ask, so is Women’s History Month still necessary? Didn’t we transform the curriculum in all the disciplines, change laws and customs, legalize abortion, force everyone to call us Ms. instead of Mrs. and Miss, and teach students not to faint when a female professor entered the room?

Unfortunately, it is still necessary to have a token month devoted to women’s lives. Every generation of little girls and women need to learn their past so that they can imagine a future in which gender equality is the norm and not the exception.

Understanding women’s history is also an essential antidote to the Republican’s “war on women.” We are no longer in the midst of just a “backlash” against the women’s movements, as was true in the 1980s; feminism is the object of a serious right-wing attack against women’s rights, especially women’s reproduction freedom. And even our friends and allies, writing about San Francisco’s cultural history, clearly need reminding that women transform history.

No one ever expected Women’s History Month to change our political culture, at least not by itself. It doesn’t change the double standard that still exists when a woman runs for electoral office. (Did she spend too much or too little time with her children?) Nor does it change the endless scrutiny of women’s appearances—attacks against Hillary Clinton’s thighs or descriptions of Wendy Davis, a Democratic candidate for Governor of Texas who stood up for women’s reproductive rights as “Abortion Barbie.”

Gerda Lerner, who many view as the mother of women’s history in the U.S, once wrote, “Everything that explains the world has in fact explained a world that does not exist, a world in which men are at the center of the human enterprise and women are at the margin "helping" them. Such a world does not exist -- never has” Women’s history brings us one tiny step closer to what Lerner wanted to change and to what Hillary Clinton proclaimed in Beijing in 1995, “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all."

This is why we still need Women’s History Month.

Ruth Rosen

Ruth Rosen, a journalist and historian, is professor emerita of history at the University of California, Davis and a visiting professor of public policy and history at UC Berkeley. For 11 years, she wrote op-ed columns for the Los Angeles Times, and from 2000-2004 she worked full-time as a political columnist and editorial page writer at the San Francisco Chronicle.

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