March is Women’s History Month. Why is it important to designate a month to celebrate the history of women? Don’t we celebrate all human history all of the time?
I’m going to answer those questions by citing some personal examples from my life that I believe parallel the lives of most women of my era.
I was born in 1942, during WWII, a brief moment in time when women held men’s traditional jobs in factories and on the farms to keep the country running smoothly while most of the adult men were fighting a war in foreign countries. Sadly, after the war ended, most of the women left the factories to give the men back the jobs and many encouraged women to return home and have more babies.
By the time I was born, women had made some advances toward equality. Finally, after 150 years of painful fighting and organized campaigning, in 1920, women finally won the right to vote. However, it took many more years before women would take their place in the halls of Congress, become CEOs of major corporations, be appointed to juries — and, eventually, to the U.S. Supreme Court — and, most recently, become the vice president of the U.S.
During my childhood, the history I learned in school was the history almost exclusively of men — written by white men, about white men. That history consisted of learning dates of wars, names of famous male leaders and the settling of the West — by men. Women were only mentioned if they were married to a famous man, such as America’s first lady, or provided a service to men. Many remember learning about Betsy Ross, who sewed the first flag for the colonies. I barely remember any women’s names from the history textbooks I was given to read.
I was always an avid reader and fascinated with the West and the days of the pioneers. The first place our mother would take me and my sisters when we moved to a new town was the library to get our library card. The library was my favorite hangout, and I read all of the Zane Grey and horse books I could find.
On Saturdays, my sisters and I would either spend hours at the library or go to the local theater matinee and watch Western movies. Most women depicted in books or movies about the West in the 1940s and 1950s were either saloon women of “ill repute,” submissive stay-at-home wives, odd women like “Calamity Jane,” or like Scarlet in “Gone With the Wind,” who was depicted as mean and self-centered because she was independent and strong.
Where were the really strong, independent women like my great-grandmother who came from Germany and homesteaded in Kansas?
Living my earliest years on a ranch, I spent most of my time riding horses and playing cowboys while wearing jeans. I always pretended to be a cowboy because there were few, if any, women portrayed in Westerns — except Dale Evans, who wore a silly skirt when riding.
When I started kindergarten, the teacher told my mother that I had to wear a dress to school. Luckily, my mother defended me, and my kindergarten picture shows me standing in front of my peers dressed in jeans with suspenders. All of the other little girls are in dresses. My mother wouldn’t let teachers force me to be right-handed which, in those days, was a common practice if a child was naturally left-handed. I am so thankful I had a strong, self-confident mother.
Somehow, internally, I knew that the complete picture was not being given to me or to all children. Even Dick and Jane books, from which I learned to read, portrayed women and girls, always in dresses, as submissive and weak, and happy just to be married and taken care of by a man — or in the case of Jane, the little sister, portrayed as weaker than her older brother in games and while playing.
When I went to junior high and high school, girls were not allowed to wear slacks or jeans, except under a dress when it was cold. I wanted to take shop classes but was not allowed — based only on my gender. There was no girls’ basketball team or any other sports teams exclusively for girls. When I organized a junior mounted posse in cooperation with the men’s mounted posse here in Evanston, I was told a girl could not be the representative for the younger posse to the men’s group even though I had done all of the legwork to get it going.
In my generation, women did not serve on juries; they were not police officers; they were not given powerful roles in society, in movies or in history books. It was only as an adult that I have learned about strong, powerful women in history who were denied recognition based solely on the fact of their gender.
Did you know that the famous sexy movie star of the 1940s, Hedy Lamarr, was also an inventor? She was a friend of Howard Hughes and suggested he redesign his square airplane wings to mimic the wings and tail of a bird. During WWII, she and a composer friend, George Antheil, were granted a patent for a secret communication system they invented to help guide torpedoes to their targets without being detected and to prevent classified messages from being intercepted by the enemy. Sadly, the military didn’t use the system and some historians believe it was only because a woman suggested it. However, the system became the underpinnings for the wireless technology we use today.
Another example of a woman who was denied recognition was biophysicist Rosalind Franklin at King’s College in London. Following decades of research, she was the first to discover and photograph the final clue needed to determine the structure of DNA. Franklin’s Photo 51 was taken by her PhD student Raymond Gosling, who showed it to James Watson and Frances Crick at Cambridge University. Gosling literally stole her discovery. Gosling, Watson, Crick and Wilkins of King’s College received the Nobel Prize in 1962 for the discovery. No mention was made of Franklin. It wasn’t until years later, after her death, that the truth came out, but the prize cannot be awarded posthumously.
These are just two examples of women who have been ignored throughout history, but there are countless more. To learn about more forgotten stories of women, go to your local library, where there are many nonfiction and historical fiction titles that honor women’s contributions to the world. The two examples I gave were included in “Who Knew? Women in History: Questions That Will Make You Think Again” by Sarah Herman from my own bookshelf.
As recently as the 1970s, true women’s history was virtually an unknown topic in K-12 curriculum or in the general public’s consciousness. By providing young children, especially young girls, with knowledge of the overlooked contributions of women to U.S. history, we give them a shared experience with a large community of powerful women. There is power in recognizing and honoring women’s contributions in the world because it gives all women and girls a voice.
The month of March is significant for recognizing the need to honor women’s right to equality in all areas of life. On March 1, 1972, the U.S. Senate passed Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination in all federally-funded education programs, and it became law later that year. Today, girls and women participate in all sports offered in educational institutions due to that law.
In 1980, Jimmy Carter issued the first presidential proclamation declaring the week of March 8 as National Women’s History Week. Molly Murphy MacGregor, a member of the National Women’s History Alliance, was instrumental in the movement that resulted in that proclamation.
What began as a week of celebration has evolved to an entire month of recognition. Since 1987, the president and Congress have designated March as Women’s History Month. The National Women’s History Alliance designates a yearly theme for that month and, continuing with the 2020 theme, this year’s is “Valiant Women of the Vote: Refusing to be Silenced.”
Currently, the #MeToo movement has grown into a worldwide support system for girls and women who speak out against physical harassment and sexual abuse and assault. Because young girls today are exposed to the strong women in history through more honest and accurate curriculum taught in schools, they can now feel supported in speaking up and speaking out. In fact, many young women like Greta Thunberg, the Swedish environmental activist, are leading environmental and humanitarian movements today.
International Women’s Day is a United Nations sanctioned global holiday, celebrated on March 8. It takes place every year to celebrate women’s contributions to society and women’s rights, to inspire people to act in the ongoing fight for gender equality and to inspire support for organizations that help women globally — and because women remain underrepresented in fields such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Women have come a long way toward equality, but we still have far to go. When we, as women, receive the same recognition and support for our contributions as men do; when our wages are equal to our counterparts; when our choices are not limited by outdated patriarchal views; when we honor the wisdom of elderly women as much as we do elderly men; when we have equal numbers of women in political offices; when we finally elect a woman to the highest office in the U.S. as president; then, perhaps, we can rest from battle and celebrate true equality with our sons, husbands, brothers and fathers.
We women are on a journey, a journey of self-exploration and personal growth, but hopefully we will also join with a community of powerful, committed women working together to hold each other up; to raise strong loving girls and boys; to honor our differences and our likenesses; and to ultimately save our planet Earth.