Another year, another March, another Women’s History Month. Like many a feminist, I’ve participated in yearly celebrations and presentations celebrating the contribution of women to our society, but it’s only been recently that I realized I had no knowledge whatsoever of WHM’s own history.
If there’s one thing I do know, celebrations of marginalized members of society don’t just spring out of nowhere, like Athena leaping fully formed from Zeus’s head. We still live in a society where “Why isn’t there a White Man’s History Month?” is seen as a legitimate question in many circles. In the United States, we just came out of an election year cycle that was punctuated by frequent, infuriating fallacies about women and women’s bodies, and where assaults on our right to safe and legal abortions have been occurring with increasing frequency. It’s an old saw, but it really does seem for every step forward progressive women take, there’s some guy out there trying to drag us back two more.
This year, March 3rd sees the 100th anniversary of the suffragettes’ March on Washington.
A (Very) Brief History of Women’s History Month:
Before WHM, there was International Women’s Day.
This year marks the 101st anniversary of International Women’s Day. The celebration came into being after the second international Conference of Working Women, when a German socialist named Clara Zetkin proposed a dedicated day every year to agitate for women’s rights. The measure passed unanimously and was first celebrated on March 19, 1911. Less than a week later, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City killed more than 140 working women and girls, most of them immigrants. This event is often highlighted as an important moment in the history of unionization, particularly in America, but it also galvanized the international women’s movement. The treatment of the workers and the dangerous working environment was a touchstone in many political rallies.
In 1917, Russian women chose to use March 8 (on the Gregorian calendar, February 23 on the Julian calendar, then observed in Russia) to strike for “bread and peace” on the eve of World War I. Since that time, International Women’s Day has been celebrated on March 8, and in 1975 the United Nations officially recognized IWD.
The theme for this year’s IWD celebration is “THE GENDER AGENDA: GAINING MOMENTUM.” You can find events scheduled for your country here. IWD designated charity this year is the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, of which I am sure there are many alumni among our ranks.
The origins of Women’s History Month in the United States can be traced back to one county in California. Sonoma County hosted a “Women’s History Week” celebration in 1978 to promote the importance of women’s contributions throughout history. The event was incredibly successful, so much so that the next year, Sarah Lawrence College spearheaded a push to nationalize WHW.
In 1980, then President Carter issued the first Presidential Proclamation urging states to adopt National Women’s History week as well as ratify the ERA. The country clearly was more ready to do one than the other. The same year, Senator Orrin Hatch and Representative Barbara Mikulski introduced a Joint Congressional Resolution for National Women’s History Week 1981.
The National Women’s History Project (founded 1980) lobbied yearly to keep NWHW alive and succeed in getting 14 states to adopt the celebration by 1986.
Congress not only declared the entire month of March “Women’s History Month” in 1987, they also declared that March would be WHM in perpetuity to honor the achievements of women in American society. The National Women’s History Project continues to curate and organize WHM celebrations; this year’s theme is “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.” This year, the NWHP is also hosting a weekend of events to celebrate the centennial of the suffrage march. If you’re in or around the Washington DC area, you can join them for speeches, events, and a reenactment of the Grand Procession down Pennsylvania Avenue.
President Obama’s Presidential Proclamation honoring last year’s 2012’s WHM can be found online here.
Portions of this post were originally published on Persephone Magazine on March 1, 2011 and March 1, 2012.