Former computer scientist and philanthropist Melinda Gates once said, “A woman with a voice is by definition a strong woman but the search to find that voice can be remarkably difficult.” From Madame Curie to Margaret Thatcher and Oprah Winfrey, history has shown us multiple times that the voice and willpower of women truly possess the power to transform the whole society. However, at the same time, our history and society have also been very reluctant in highlighting the role that women have played in shaping the world around us.
So to commemorate the immense contribution of female leaders, innovators, journalists, entrepreneurs, homemakers, artists, doctors, politicians, etc, every year, the month of March is celebrated as Women’s History Month in different parts of the world, including the US. However, in Canada, it is celebrated in October because, in a historic court decision made on October 18, 1929 (Persons Day), women in Canada were given the right to be appointed as senators and exercise full political power for the first time.
Although the first official Women’s History Month was celebrated in the US in March 1987, its foundation was laid on February 28, 1909, when the Socialist Party of America organized the very first Women’s Day in New York City. Impressed with this Women’s Day celebration, the following year German representatives at the International Socialist Women’s Conference proposed the idea of having an annual Women’s Day. Within two years, Women’s Day had grown into an international observance.
On March 19, 1911, the first International Women’s Day (IWD) was celebrated in different parts of Europe, including Germany, Switzerland, and France. Women gathered in large numbers and conducted rallies and protests over issues like gender discrimination, domestic violence, and suffrage (right to vote) on that day. Following the Russian revolution, women gained the right to equal pay, and women were appointed to ministerial positions for the first time. In 1922, Vladimir Lenin declared March 8 as the official Women's Day and a national holiday in the country.
After World War II, and the formation of the UN in 1945, it took the organization almost 30 years to recognize International Women’s Day, possibly because the day had become associated with communist countries. United Nations celebrated IWD for the first time in 1975, and then two years later, it declared March 8 as the official International Women’s Day. Since then, the day has served as a reminder of women’s rights all across the globe.
From IWD to Women’s History Week and Women’s History Month
As per Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments Act of 1972, “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance”. Title IX became law on June 23, 1972. While Title IX prohibited sex-based discrimination in any school or education program that received federal money, many schools were not actually enforcing it. So, five years later, a task force based in Sonoma County, California, reached out to different school principals in the region.
They proposed the idea of conducting a Women’s History Week celebration as a way to not only honor women’s accomplishments but also as a way to persuade school principals to comply with the recently passed Title IX Act.
By 1979, numerous schools in California were participating in Women’s History Week celebrations that were being conducted around March 8 - the IWD.
The celebrations in California turned out to be a great success in highlighting the impact of the Women’s rights movement and the contribution of different women leaders in uplifting American Society. Soon after the Women’s History Week events in March 1979, between July 13 and July 29, the organization Women’s Action Alliance (WAA), in association with Smithsonian Institution, organized a women’s history conference at the Sarah Lawrence Liberal Arts College in New York.
At the conference, headed by Austrian-American author Dr. Gerda Lerner, the task force behind California’s Women’s History Week events met with some national leaders and influential women activists and discussed their progress on making educational institutes comply with the Title IX changes, including through the use of Women’s Week celebrations. The task force members emphasized the significance of their efforts by highlighting that women’s history had not previously been discussed in the K-12 school curriculum.
Thanks to the Women’s History conference, by January 1980, Women’s History Week had become a national sensation. In February, US President Jimmy Carter announced that the week following March 8 would be now celebrated as National Women’s History Week.
In his historical proclamation, President Carter said, "Too often the women were unsung and sometimes their contributions went unnoticed. But the achievements, leadership, courage, strength and love of the women who built America was as vital as that of the men whose names we know so well. As Dr. Gerda Lerner has noted, 'Women’s History is Women’s Right.' It is an essential and indispensable heritage from which we can draw pride, comfort, courage, and long-range vision. I ask my fellow Americans to recognize this heritage with appropriate activities during National Women’s History Week, March 2–8, 1980. I urge libraries, schools, and community organizations to focus their observances on the leaders who struggled for equality –Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Lucy Stone, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Tubman, and Alice Paul. Understanding the true history of our country will help us to comprehend the need for full equality under the law for all our people.”
In 1987, Congress dedicated the whole month of March to honor womankind and extended the previously declared week to become National Women’s History Month. The US president makes a proclamation every year announcing March to be celebrated as National Women’s History Month.
The theme for Women’s History Month 2022 is “Providing Healing, Promoting Hope.” It is dedicated to the priceless and backbreaking service that female caregivers and frontline workers of all cultures have provided during the COVID-19 pandemic. The theme also reminds us of the healing, care, and hope that women have rendered to humanity throughout history.
Shocking facts about women’s rights and women’s history
Here are some unforgettable facts about women’s history that would let you know how despite facing an unjust world, females never gave up and continued the fight for their rights:
- Although the 19th amendment that guaranteed American women the right to vote was passed in August 1920, many native, black, and Asian women (and men) living in different American states still couldn’t cast their vote because of laws such as poll taxes and literacy tests. Finally, in 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, these discriminatory state laws ceased to exist, and all women in the US could vote.
- Wyoming was the first state in the US to give every woman of legal age the right to exercise her voting rights, passing the first women's suffrage law in the U. S. in 1869. The state also elected the first female US governor, Nellie Tayloe Ross in 1924 (she was also the only female governor of Wyoming and 19 states have never had a female governor). However, the first female vote in colonial America was cast in 1756, when Lydia Taft voted in local elections after she became the largest taxpayer in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, after the death of her husband, Josiah Taft. Unmarried white women who owned property could also vote in New Jersey from 1776 to 1807.
- The scientist Marie Curie, who is remembered as the first woman in history to win a Nobel prize is also the only person (both among men and women) to date who has been awarded Nobel prize in two different science categories — physics (for her work on radioactivity in 1906) and chemistry (for discovering radioactive elements polonium and radium in the year 1911). She was also the first person to receive the Nobel prize twice. Her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 for her work in artificial radioactivity.
- The law that had enabled women to vote in Wyoming became a hurdle in the territories' path to be recognized as a state in 1890 when Congress demanded that Wyoming repeal the 1869 law in order to join the union. The state of Wyoming gave a bold reply to Congress for making what it considered an unjust and unfair demand. In a telegram to Congress, the state leaders clearly said, “We will remain out of the Union one hundred years rather than come in without the women.” Congress gave up before the spirit of Wyoming and made the state a part of the union in 1890 along with the 1869 voting law.
- In the early 1900s, the UK government at that time was very strict on groups and people who demanded suffrage and protested for equal rights for women. Women were sent to jail when they used to participate in any such activities, and in prison, due to hunger strikes and abuse, they faced serious health risks. To overcome this issue, a British martial arts teacher, Edith Margaret Garrud, secretly started giving jiu-jitsu training to female protestors so that they could defend themselves during a police action. She formed a group called “The Bodyguard” that were experts in jiu-jitsu and armed themselves with clubs hidden in their dresses. Inspired by these events, Italian artist Tony Wolf later created a graphic novel series titled Suffrajitsu, after a term used by newspapers at the time.
A spiritual leader once said, “the role of women in the development of society is of utmost importance. In fact, it is the only thing that determines whether a society is strong and harmonious or otherwise. Women are the backbone of society.”
Unfortunately, we still live in a world that is unjust to women. Even today, women continually face discrimination, violence, and inequality, issues like mandated maternity leave, equal pay, lack of respect for caregiving, maternal mortality, misogyny still remain unresolved in various parts of the world. Yet as mothers, wives, friends, scientists, business professionals, writers, colleagues, and leaders, women are seen trying their best to make their homes, offices, nations, and this world perfect.
So yes, they are indeed the backbone of human society but the truth is, a lot more credit and consideration are due, and it is high time we tried to make Women’s History Month truly meaningful for all the great women around us. One thoughtful way of doing that could be to encourage our government to implement strong laws that ensure that women's rights are realized and respected.