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 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 from Zeus’s head. We are just not there yet. Not when a frequent reaction to WHM or BHM is, “Why isn’t there a White Guy History Month?” Not when there’s an actual national debate over where women should be mandated by the state to endure invasive and unnecessary medical procedures in order to procure another, legal medical procedure. If there’s ever been a year to throw a little light onto women’s issues, women’s desires, and women’s contributions to the world, this might be it.
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 19th, 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 8th (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 8th, and in 1975 the United Nations officially recognized IWD.
The theme for this year’s IWD celebration is “Connecting Girls, Inspiring the Future.” You can find events scheduled for your country here. IWD is also partnered with singer Annie Lennox’s project EQUALS, a collation of charities promoting equality for women worldwide. They have some fabulous resources on their download page.
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’s Education ““ Women’s Empowerment“.
President Obama’s Presidential Proclamation honoring last year’s 2011’s WHM can be found online here.
Portions of this post were originally published on Persephone Magazine on March 1, 2011.