Why is the history of women singled out and celebrated with Women's History Month? Dr. Myra Pollack Sadker, a pioneer researcher who documented gender bias in American schools, summed it up well when she noted that “each time a girl opens a book and reads a womanless history, she learns she is worth less.”
The “womanless” history Dr. Sadker refers to is the mainstream approach to U.S History, one that most often overlooks the many accomplishments of American, particularly multicultural, women. When people talk about women’s history, they are largely referring to the study of women’s roles throughout history, including the growth of women’s rights, historically significant individuals and groups of women, and the effects that historical events have had on women. Advocates of women’s history believe that traditional historical perspectives minimize or ignore the contributions of women and the effect historical events have had on women as a whole.
Much of the scholarship regarding women’s history is westernized (coming from the US and Britain) and highly influenced by second-wave feminist historians. Eager to learn more about the lives of foremothers, women’s liberation activists found it very difficult to find pertinent information. The existing historical texts were largely written by men for male audiences about men’s public activities – politics, war, administration. In these narratives, women are excluded or relegated to gender-stereotypical domestic roles.
The truth is that women have been major contributors throughout history and key voices in many of today’s most notable historical events, discoveries, and inventions.
- Ever heard of Rosalind Franklin? She was a British biophysicist whose work led Watson and Crick to develop their double helix model of DNA. Lise Meitner? She was an integral part of the team that discovered how nuclear fission worked but it was her colleague, Otto Hahn, who was awarded the Nobel Prize.
- What about the six women – Kay Mauchly Antonelli, Jean Jennings Bartik, Betty Snyder Holberton, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Fran Bilas Spence, and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum -- who programmed the first electronic general-purpose computer, the ENIAC?
- Have you ever grooved to Rosetta Tharpe, gospel’s first recording star and one of the earliest rock and rollers?
- Did you read Susie Baker King Taylor’s memoir of her civil wartime experiences? She became literate by attending secret schools taught by black women and eventually established a school for freed children in Georgia after the war.
The contributions of these women, and countless others, remain relegated to the periphery of history. This is, in part, because as a discipline, history remained a male-dominated profession until the 1960s; women’s narratives had little currency in the field. Gerda Lerner is often cited as the first professor to offer a regular college course in women’s history in 1963. Socially, women made significant progress achieving equality throughout the 1960s, but it wasn’t until 1970 that women began to be integrated at scale into history departments within graduate programs.
The regular observance of Women’s History Month didn’t actually begin until 1987 when the National Women’s History Project petitioned Congress to designate March as Women’s History Month. The Month’s origins date only as far back as 1981 when Congress passed legislation authorizing and requesting the president to proclaim the week of March 7, 1982, as Women’s History Week. Since 1995, after years of legislative work, Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have issued annual proclamations designating March as Women’s History Month. The National Women’s History Project has long spearheaded the efforts behind Women’s History month by providing informational services as well as educational and promotional materials that recognize and celebrate the diverse and historic accomplishments of women.