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March is the 25th Anniversary of the Multicultural Women’s History Movement

by Molly Murphy MacGregor
Executive Director and Cofounder
National Women’s History Project

This March we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the multicultural women's history movement. Designated by Joint Resolutions of the House and Senate and Proclamations by five American Presidents, March has become a huge opportunity for the nation to recognize women as a force in history.

Each year, a special theme is chosen for National Women's History Month. This year's theme, Women Change America, celebrates and honors the role of American women in transforming our culture, history, and politics.

Women Change America also honors women as leaders, writers, scientists, educators, politicians, artists, athletes, entertainers, historians, and informed citizens.

Women Change America also recognizes the 85th anniversary of women in the United States winning the right to vote.

In this special anniversary year, all of the women who have been previously designated as Women's History Week or Month Honorees are being recognized. Each of these women's lives is a testimony to the countless ways in which the spirit, courage, and contributions of American women have added to the vitality, richness, and diversity of American life.

The purpose of women's history is not to idealize women. On the contrary, the stories of women's achievements present a full view of the complexity and contradiction of living a full and purposeful life. Many of the Women Change America were seen in their own times as difficult and controversial. They often challenged the social customs and even the legal rules of the times.

Learning about the extraordinary achievements of women helps diminish the tendency of some modern-day pundits to dismiss and trivialize who women are and what they accomplish. In celebrating women's historic achievements, we present an authentic view of history. The knowledge of women's history provides a more expansive vision of what a woman can do. This perspective can encourage girls and women to think larger and bolder and can give boys and men a fuller understanding of the female experience.

America has been changed by the grace and elegance of dancers like Martha Graham, whose innovative style of movement pioneered modern dance, and Maria Tallchief, the prima ballerina whose unique artistry and technical talent dominated the world of international dance for two decades. Our country has been transformed by the magic of music by women, like composer and conductor Tania León, and the beautiful clarion voices of Beverly Sills and Marian Anderson.

We have been changed by the beauty, the daring, and the boldness of women's artistic expressions. Artists like Judith Baca whose urban murals give voice to the importance of public art, And Georgia O'Keefe whose vision encompasses America's larger than life landscapes to the exquisite detailed recesses of calla lilies, orchids, and hollyhocks, to the soft abstractions of the western desert. Maya Lin's sculpture is like poetry. Her genius has inspired public art, including the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the Civil Right Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.

As a nation, we have been inspired by bold acts of political courage. We remember these brave, and some would say audacious, actions. When our country was facing America's Great Depression, Francis Perkins as Secretary of Labor provided the vision and leadership that resulted in unemployment income for American workers and social security protection for older Americans, freeing them from their fear of destitution and poverty. These new social programs brought hope and a sense of the future to a country desperately in need of both.

In 1950, when America was gripped with fear of Communism, ill-conceived Senate hearings cast doubt on the patriotism of innocent Americans. Senator Margaret Chase Smith was the only woman in the US Senate at that time, yet she rose on the floor of the Senate Chambers and challenged the witch-hunting tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy when she delivered her Declaration of Conscience speech.

Two decades later, Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman to be elected to the House of Representatives, took her message of justice and equality to the American people by running for the office of President of the United States. Her mission was to empower the American people and remind them that they had a right to elect a candidate who was not influenced by corporate interests. She stood as a politician who in her own words was "unbought and unbossed."

As we move forward in the 21st century, many of these stories have become a vital part of the telling of our history. This was not the case in 1980 when less than 3% of the content of school textbooks mentioned the contributions of women. Women, when included, were usually written in as mere footnotes to history. For most students, based on their textbooks, women's work and accomplishments were not central to the telling of our nation's history.

To discover what students were learning in 1980 about women's history, several classes of 6th grade students were asked to name five women in US history. Without exception, the students could not at first think of one woman in American history. Then, they came up with the idea of adding Mrs. to the names of each President they could remember.

Their list began Mrs. Washington,…Mrs. Lincoln,…Mrs. Jefferson…and so forth. Since Jefferson had been a widower for 18 years before becoming President, it was clear that students were just adding the title Mrs., assuming that all the Presidents were married.

When these students were encouraged to think more about a list of important women, excluding First Ladies, the only ideas that emerged were Betsy Ross and the Statue of Liberty. Sadly, these students knew little about either the Statue of Liberty or the real Betsy Ross and her patriotic courage and tenacity. This student sampling is anecdotal and not quantitative, but the students’ answers, coupled with academic studies that documented the lack of content about women, underscored the need to include a fuller discussion of the contributions of women to American history in our schools.

How are our children --girls and boys alike --going to understand the importance of women to American culture and history if their education includes little or nothing about the significance of women's contributions?

Not one student mentioned Harriet Tubman and her 19 daring rescues of 300 enslaved people before the Civil War. Or Eleanor Roosevelt, who is revered throughout the world for successfully championing the United Nation's Declaration of Human Rights—a document used as a roadmap for emerging democratic world-wide reform movements.

Or Rosa Parks, who changed America by asserting her rights as a citizen, refusing to be humiliated or discounted. Her refusal to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1954 helped ignite America's Civil Rights Movement.

To address the absence of information about women in America's schools, the National Women's History Project led a movement to have Congress designate a celebration to recognize women's historic achievements. The goal was to ensure that information about the myriad ways women have changed America would be part of our children's education. Knowing who women are and all they have accomplished challenges the stereotype of women as passive, non-participants in our culture and history.

In 1980, President Carter issued the first Presidential Proclamation calling on the American people to pause and remember the contributions of women. By 1987, fourteen governors had declared March as Women's History Month, and that same year, Congress and the President followed by declaring March as National Women's History Month.

We know from research and from anecdotal studies that learning the stories of women's success, talent, and accomplishments expands a sense of what is possible for girls and women. Research on how the knowledge of women's history affects boys and men is somewhat less specific. At the very least, information about famous women and their successes gives males and females alike a perspective that challenges some of our cultures’ most unconscious and archaic assumptions about who women are and what they have done.

But what about the so-called "common" woman -- our mothers, our aunts, our teachers, our neighbors? What are their roles? What have they done?

In learning about women's history, we learn that the so-called "common woman" is at the core of what we call women's history. It is the "common woman" who not only holds the family, community, and culture together, but who for centuries has been essential to women changing America. Their stories remind us of the importance of not giving up on something that you believe is important. These are the women who built communities, sustained dreams, and gave voice and purpose to what has become American society. Indeed, these are the women who change America.

When we look at women who changed America, we see each is connected to another time, another woman.

Thus, women's history becomes a story of inspiration and hope. A story of courage and tenacity. A story of promise, possibility and purpose. Women's history is our nation's story. It is the story of how Women Have Changed America and how they will continue to do so.

Written by: Molly Murphy MacGregor, Executive Director and Cofounder, National Women's History Project. For women's history information, resources, and materials see www.nwhp.org.

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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