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A R T I C L E S* &* S P E E C H E S

WOMEN SUSTAINING THE AMERICAN SPIRIT

Courtesy of the National Women's History Project

March is Women's History Month. Declared by Congress in 1987, it is during the month of March that communities, schools, and workplaces throughout the country hold special events and celebrations to honor the extraordinary historic accomplishments of women.

The theme for Women's History Month 2002 is Women Sustaining the American Spirit. The purpose of the theme is to showcase and honor the diverse and interlocking stories of women who have created and affirmed the American spirit. This theme helps deliver the message of who American women are and what they have accomplished. It is a message that needs to be carried out throughout the year. It is a vision for the world and for our children.

From the earliest times in American history, women have played pivotal roles in creating, expanding, and sustaining what has become the American Spirit. These women did not speak in one voice, nor did they support the same outcomes. Still, their courageous actions and steadfast determination in the face of great opposition is part of a common heritage. It is the Spirit of America.

America is unique in that our country has served as a refuge for those escaping religious and political persecution. Our history is the history of people coming together from different nations and continents with a myriad of traditions and beliefs. We are held together as a nation and as a people by our belief in a set of laws framed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, laws that guarantee freedom of thought and expression. Since before the ratification of the US Constitution, women have worked to ensure that America's rich cultural, social, educational, and religious ideas are incorporated in a political system that honors America's pluralism. This American Spirit is as rich and diverse as the people who created it.

The story of American women is the story of women working together to form a more perfect union, expanding the idea of representative government and democratic principals for all generations. This expansion of democratic principles has helped create a spirit of possibility and purpose --the American Spirit.

Today, I would like to tell you about six women whose remarkable lives testify to the tenacity and determination in creating a spirit of possibility and purpose. Their lives and work span much of the 20th Century. Their actions celebrate the importance of community and service; of family and tradition; and of living a life with heartfelt purpose. Collectively, they have been honored by every echelon of government including five US Presidents. In America and throughout the world, their achievements have been recognized by countless organizations and universities. Together they have helped pave the way for a greater sense of possibility in America of the 21st Century.

The 2002 honorees were born within 20 years of each other - from 1910 to 1930. During this time, the world changed dramatically. The modern world participated in the First World War, and America faced the repercussions of that War and Prohibition, as well as the beginnings of the Great Depression. These were decades of extraordinary hardship and rapid change. Yet, the lives of the women we honor today testify to the many ways in which individuals triumph over adversity. Their stories express the rich complexity of the American experience.

Dorothy Height was born prior to World War I in 1912 in Richmond, Virginia. She was educated in the public schools in Rankin, Pennsylvania. At a very early age, she established herself as a dedicated student with exceptional oratorical skills. What is remarkable about Dorothy Height is that as a young girl she fearlessly expressed herself and did not internalize or retreat from the racist and sexist assumptions or actions of the times.

It is not surprising that even as a young woman of 25, she heeded the call of Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women, to join her in her quest for women's full and equal employment and educational advancement. By that time, Dr. Height's career as a Civil Rights advocate had begun to unfold as she worked to prevent lynching, desegregate the armed forces, reform the criminal justice system, and create free access to public accommodations.

That same year Dr. Height began her work with the National Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) of the USA. She rose quickly through the ranks and held several leadership positions. Assuming responsibility for developing leadership training activities for volunteers and staff, she also developed programs to promote interracial and ecumenical education. Dr. Height is credited with developing the strategies to ensure the success of the YWCA's mission to provide equal opportunity and facilities for women of all cultures and nationalities.

She was one of the major leaders of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's. These were fear-filled, challenging times. To create a dialogue about the Civil Rights Movement, she organized "Wednesdays in Mississippi," bringing together Southern and Northern White and Black women. Her belief in honoring the diversity of America is seen in her promotion of interfaith, interracial, and ecumenical movements.

Having served as the president of the National Council of Negro Women for over 40 years, Dr. Height's work has helped countless women in America and around the world participate in democratic reform resulting in new opportunities for themselves, their families, and their communities.

In 1937, when Dorothy Height was beginning her work with the YWCA, another young woman a continent away was fighting the growing anti-Semitism that would within the decade create a devastating Holocaust for millions of European Jews.

Gerda Lerner was born in 1920 in Vienna, Austria into a well-to-do Jewish family. As a teenager she experienced the Nazi's rise to power and became involved in the underground resistance movement. She was imprisoned and then, with her family, forced into exile. In 1938, she alone was able to find refuge in America. Arriving during the difficult time of the Great Depression, she worried about the fate of her family still living in Europe. She became a naturalized American Citizen, married her life partner Carl Lerner and had two children.

She demonstrated her strong convictions about the importance of justice and equality for all people by participating in grassroots, community movements. She worked to create an interracial civil rights movement; for better schools in New York City; for peace and social justice; and against McCarthyism.

In 1958 Gerda Lerner returned to college and in 1966 graduated with a Ph.D. from New York's Columbia University. Becoming one of the nation's preeminent scholars, she challenged long-held assumptions about women and their significance in history. Today, Dr. Lerner is acknowledged as one of the foremost pioneers in the field of women's history. Her scholarship was informed and expanded by her involvement and understanding of the power of grassroots, political movements. Her work now spans four decades.

In 1971 she wrote The Grimke Sisters, the story of two, white, privileged, Southern women who went North to fight against slavery. Her writings address the need to eliminate the invisibility of women and her books fill in the omissions. She began writing an extraordinary research project on the development of feminist consciousness, which necessitated almost a decade of research and two volumes. The first volume, The Creation of Patriarchy, was published in 1986, and the second, The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, in 1993. Her current best seller is Why History Matters. Gerda Lerner's brilliant scholarship and teaching demand that students and readers re-examine old ideas about who women are and what women have accomplished. In April, her autobiography, Fireweed, will be published. In all, she has written 10 books and mentored generations of historians.

In 1981 Dr. Lerner became the first woman in fifty years to be elected president of the Organization of American Historians. She continues to encourage the expansion of thought and perspective. Her work is a celebration of the American Spirit.

A contrasting example can be found in Dakotah/Hidatsa (pronounced da ko ta /hee dot sa) historian and scholar Mary Louise Defender-Wilson. Her stories connect the ancient with the present, the traditional with the modern, and all life forms with each other. Her words testify to the complexity of America's history and the rich diversity of America's contemporary society.

Using the gifts passed down from her great grandmother, to her grandmother, to her mother, she uses the ancient form of story telling to help remind us of life's purpose. Her stories are based on the traditions of the Dakotah/Hidatsa in promoting peace and respect among all people. Her work serves as a cultural bridge to the America of the 21st Century.

Mary Louise was born on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in Sheilds, North Dakota in October of 1930. From her earliest years, she was steeped in the stories handed down through the centuries by gifted storytellers who kept alive the legends of the past. Using both the Dakotah and English languages, she began storytelling when she was eleven years old. Repeating the stories of her elders, she learned to respect and honor human conflict resolution.

Her life and work blend traditional Dakotah/Hidatsa ways with those of contemporary America. She uses her storytelling to foster knowledge and respect for one's own culture and as the bridge to communication and respecting the culture of others. Knowing the richness of history and power of culture and language, Mary Louise Defender-Wilson worked to educate all the children in North Dakota about the basic principles of honor. The curriculum she created was based on the Dakotah principles of courage, wisdom, compassion, and spirituality. Her stories can be compared to those of Aesops Fables for the lessons they teach.

Today, she continues her work through radio programs and CD recordings and tells stories that celebrate the idea that all generations need to be connected with a sense of purpose and history. Her vision is one of respect and honor for all life. Her passion is for the land and its care.

Hearing her stories told first in her native tongue and then in English reminds the listener of the complicated beauty and nuances of language. As a nation of so many contrasting voices, Americans can benefit from taking the time to listen and hear. There is so much to gain from knowing about other American cultural and generational experiences.

The Great Depression of the 1930's defined the American experience for a generation. It was a difficult time for most, yet somehow hope for a better time prevailed.

Dolores Huerta was born in Dawson, New Mexico in 1930, about seven months after the infamous stock market crash. For Dolores, it was the strength, independence, and ambition of her mother that encouraged her to create her own life and her own sense of purpose. In so doing, she came to embody the American spirit that defies all stereotypes. Dolores Huerta is small in body but gigantic in spirit and energy. Her passion for justice and equal opportunity makes her one the century's most powerful and respected labor movement leaders.

In the 1950's after graduating from Stockton Junior College, Dolores began teaching in a farm workers' community. As she witnessed the heartbreaking hunger of her students, she knew she needed to take direct action to try to eliminate the brutal conditions of poverty that defined their lives and their aspirations. She decided to leave teaching and began working in the community to secure better living and working conditions for the farm workers.

To confront these problems, she used the American traditions of organizing, lobbying, registering voters, and encouraging people to participate in democratic reform. In 1962 along with Caesar Chavez, she co-founded what would become the United Farm Workers Union (UFW). Using tactics of non-violence, she organized a successful boycott of California table grapes. The boycott lasted five years but resulted in the entire California table grape industry signing a three-year collective bargaining agreement with the UFW.

Dolores Huerta is also credited with lobbying successfully for the enactment of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the first law of its kind in the United States which grants farm workers the right to collectively organize and bargain for better wages and working conditions. Four decades later, she continues with the goal of empowering farm workers with information and skills to help them secure better living and working conditions.

Ms. Huerta's eleven grown children credit their mother with inculcating in them a sense of civic duty and inspiring them to succeed in their varied professions of doctor, lawyer, massage therapist, teacher, public health specialist, film maker, and poet. She is also a role model for her fifteen grandchildren, encouraging each of them to act with purpose and to believe in the possibility of what their work can accomplish.

Her life and her mission demonstrate the most generous and determined aspects of the American Spirit.

The determination of the American Spirit can also be seen in the life of Alice Coachman. In London, England in 1948, during the first Olympics held after World War II, Alice became the first American woman to win an Olympic Gold medal in track and field. Breaking the previous world record in the high jump, her success challenged long held assumptions about women's physical ability to participate in track and field and opened the doors for the success of generations to follow which would include 3-time gold medallist Wilma Rudolph and her Tigerbell teammates.

Alice Coachman was born in Albany, Georgia in 1923, the fifth of ten children. Denied access to public training facilities because of segregation policies, she ran barefoot on the back roads of Georgia and devised all sorts of makeshift setups to jump over - from strings and ropes to sticks and tied rags. Her parents thought she should direct herself to a more ladylike path, but Alice was determined to succeed as an athlete.

Alice overcame the effects of segregation to win twenty-five national titles as well as the Olympic Gold. Emboldened with the spirit of possibility, Alice says, "I've always believed that I could do whatever I set my mind to do." After her Olympic victory, she returned to America to train other women athletes. Her legacy opened possibilities for future generations of women to participate and succeed in Track and Field. Alice Coachman worked to ensure the success of future generations as she passed the torch of opportunity to other American women.

Although they have never met, Alice Coachman and Patsy Mink share a passion for athletics and sport. Alice won the Olympic Gold and trained others to follow; Patsy championed the break-through legislation that allows girls and women to participate in sports beyond anything imagined in previous generations.

Patsy Mink has served in the House of Representatives for twelve terms. She is the first woman of Asian descent to serve in the U.S. Congress. Her ancestry is the classic story of immigrants seeking a better life in America for themselves and their families. Her four grandparents emigrated from Japan in the late 1800's to work as contract laborers in Maui's sugar plantations.

Patsy was born in Maui in December of 1928. From her earliest years, she was encouraged to excel in academic courses. When she ran for student body president during her junior year in high school, she began her unofficial political career. World War II had begun and she was facing the anti-Japanese-American sentiment that prevailed throughout the country. She also had to overcome the obstacle of being the first girl to run for this office. To achieve this goal, she impressed a variety of students, including gaining the support of the popular football team. She won a very close election and learned the importance of coalition building. In 1944 she graduated as high school class valedictorian.

She began college at the University of Hawaii, but transferred to the University of Nebraska where she faced a policy of segregated student housing. Working with other students, their parents, and even university trustees, this policy of discrimination was ended. She returned to the University of Hawaii to prepare for medical school and graduated with a degree in zoology and chemistry. However, in 1948, none of the twenty medical schools to which she applied would accept women.

She decided to study law and was accepted by the University of Chicago because they considered her a "foreign student." Deciding not to inform the University that Hawaii was an American territory, she obtained her Doctor of Jurisprudence in 1951.

Newly married, she became the first Asian-American woman to practice law in Hawaii. In 1956, she was elected to the Territorial House of Representatives. It was the beginning of a long and effective political life for Patsy Mink

In 1959, Hawaii became the 50th state. In 1965, Patsy Mink was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and began the first of six consecutive terms in the House of Representatives. She was the first woman of color to be elected to Congress.

Mink's ability to build coalitions for progressive legislation continued during her tenure in Congress. She introduced the first comprehensive Early Childhood Education Act and authored the Women's Educational Equity Act.

In the early 1970's, she played a key role in the enactment of Title IX of the Higher Education Act Amendments. Written in 1972 to be enacted by 1977, Title IX, which prohibited gender discrimination by federally funded institutions, has become the major tool for women's fuller participation not only in sports, but in all aspects of education.

In 1977, Patsy Mink gave up her House seat to make an unsuccessful run for the US Senate, but in 1990 she was re-elected to the House. Her hard work is obvious as she serves on a variety of House Committees and Subcommittees. Her dedication and knowledge are highly visible as she strives to create an equitable America where all people have access to education in a peaceful environment. She has accomplished much in sustaining the American Spirit.

As we recognize the extraordinary contribution of the 2002 honorees, we are reminded that their success was possible because of the ideas of a democratic society. It is important to consider the power and privilege of a representative government. For a moment, think of how different your life is because you live in a country with not only a Constitution, but also a Bill of Rights.

American women won the right vote in 1920. It was a 72-year campaign conducted by those whose names few of us will ever know. Yet, we owe them our gratitude. Because they believed in the American Spirit, and participated in the American process of petitioning, lobbying, and organizing, women's lives are filled with possibilities previously unimagined.

In celebrating the American Spirit, let us also recognize the countless women who everyday encourage a sense of possibility by their generous acts of kindness. Let us honor the women who daily help make the world better. Let us remember the teachers in our schools, the volunteers in our communities, the women in our families. Who are the women who have encouraged your own sense of possibility?

Remembering that encouraging the sense of possibility and purpose is part of America's promise, we honor all women who have made this promise a reality. As we celebrate Women Sustaining the American Spirit, let us not just remember their work in March, but let us remember and celebrate their lives throughout the year.

Thank you.

Written by: Molly Murphy MacGregor, President and Cofounder, National Women's History Project


Related NWHP articles:

The National Women’s History Project (NWHP) is a non–profit organization dedicated to recognizing and celebrating the diverse and historic accomplishments of women by providing information and educational material and programs. For more about NWHP, as well as to find out about National Women's History Month events in your area, please see their website at www.nwhp.org.

 

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