Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Making History

Photo courtesy of Flickr user ibitmylip under Creative Commons 3.0

Fighting to be Remembered

Every March, time is allotted in the American school system to discuss women’s impact on history.  For roughly 30 days, the sidebars in text books become the main event. 
As children learn about women fighting for the right to vote or participate in sports, it’s worth noting the observance of Women’s History Month itself was a struggle. 
The battle for the calendar began in 1978.  Initially only seven days of remembrance, “Women’s History Week” hovered over the already established International Women’s Day—a worldwide holiday that celebrated its 100th anniversary this year. 
The United States was content with just a week of women’s history for nearly a decade.  And then it became an issue.  
According to the National Women’s History Month Project, it was 1987 when the group “petitioned Congress to expand the celebration to the entire month of March. Since then, the National Women’s History Month Resolution has been approved every year with bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.”

Why History Matters
If women are half the population, they should be half of everything else.  Yet women are underrepresented in government, underpaid at work, and under appreciated in the past. 
Why does history matter?  When little girls learn that women didn’t do as much to make this country great, they internalize they can’t do as much in the future. 
With centuries worth of women’s contributions overlooked or erased, one month of relevance hardly seems sufficient.  Luckily, there are several agents working to preserve women’s history all year long. 
The National Women’s Studies Association is “leading the field in educational and social transformation.”  The importance of Women’s Studies and the academic understanding of gender are incalculable.  Unfortunately, these topics are reserved for classrooms in university settings—as are resources devoted entirely to women’s history.
The Feminist Press, set up at the City University of New York, is helping to make women’s history visible.  Dedicated to “rescuing lost works” and publishing “exciting writing by women and men who share an activist spirit and a belief in choice and equality,” this publisher seeks out what’s been forgotten.  If you’ve read The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, thank the Feminist Press. 
But what about something more tangible for the public? 

70,000 square feet of women-centric exhibits is a good place to start.  The Women’s Museum opened its doors in 2000, explaining “a fully democratic civil society must represent and involve both men and women, and that the voices, vision and contributions of women must be part of the fabric of history and shape of the future.” 
The Smithsonian affiliate resides in Texas, while the Smithsonian Institute is located in Washington D.C.  Another organization is attempting to build the first-ever women’s history museum in the nation’s capital, but the project has been stationary for years while Congress keeps the bill on hold. 

Who Makes the Cut
This year’s theme for Women’s History Month is “our history is our strength,” which brings me to my final thought.  When teachers incorporate women into the curriculum, they always turn to the usual suspects.
But women’s history is not just Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  Looking back, suffragettes like Alice Paul sealed the deal with more radical tactics. 
And it’s more than Amelia Earhart or Helen Keller.  While each of their life’s work was incredible, they continue to overshadow Emma Goldman, Dolores Huerta, and all the women who fearlessly fought for workers rights. 
Women’s history is made up of Margaret Sanger, who gave us Planned Parenthood and the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, who wrote “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”
It’s more than Gloria Steinem, but Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Margaret Sloan, Flo Kennedy and all the women who shared a vision of a more egalitarian lifestyle.
The road to social, political and economic equality was paved by Betty Friedan and the National Organization for Women (NOW) as well as Rita Mae Brown and the Lavender Menace.
And women’s accomplishments aren’t just Sandra Day O’Connor and all the women who came first, but Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonja Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and all the women who came after.
There are eight days of Women’s History Month left.  Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is this:
First, learn about a nontraditional figure in women’s history.  Find someone other than a white, able-bodied, heterosexual, well-known icon to add to the conversation.  Act as their publicist.  Tell everyone. 
And second, realize you have the potential to make history yourself.  So do it.

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