History / Women and Gender

Why Women’s History Month Matters

Today marks the last day of Women’s History Month.  Now you might be thinking, why do we even need a history month for women?  Something I certainly heard quite often growing up.  And in theory, you’d be right.  Women’s history doesn’t exist separately; our lives intricately intertwine with men’s.  Yet that’s precisely what happens in textbooks, historical novels, films and documentaries.  Media often writes women out of history.

Women are rarely shown in combat, although they fought and fight alongside men as troops and tend to wounded as doctors and nurses.  During WWII, women worked in factories while men were overseas.  Women have protested for Roe v. Wade, the Equal Rights Amendment and the right to vote.  When I was in elementary and high school, I never heard the names Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan or Simone de Beauvoir uttered.  I also never learned the details of the suffrage movement.  It wasn’t until I was an adult and watched the film Iron Jawed Angels in which I discovered the forced feeding and hunger strikes that Alice Paul, Lucy Burns and others endured, all in the struggle for women’s equality.

Women have created as artists and writers, pioneered in science, mathematics and the medical field.  Women innovated by inventing the windshield wiper (Mary Anderson), home dishwasher (Josephine Garis Cochran), disposable diaper (Marion Donovan), the home diabetes test (Helen Free), White Out (Bette Nesmith Graham) and Kevlar (Stephanie Louise Kwolek).  In the 1870 Census, the first to count women’s labor, women comprised 15% of the workforce. Occupations ranged from teachers to lawyers, doctors, steelworkers and more.  But we don’t always hear about women’s accomplishments.  So below are just some of the amazing women who have pioneered in their respective fields:

  • Poetry – Al-Khansa (Arab poet), Sappho, Emily Dickinson, Maya Angelou
  • Literature – Murasaki Shikibu (author of Tale of Genji, the 1st novel), Virginia Woolf, the Brontë sisters, Mary Wollstonecraft, Audre Lorde, Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Margaret Atwood
  • Playwrights – Eve Ensler, Joyce Carol Oates, Wendy Wasserstein, Ntozake Shange
  • Film directors – Kathryn Bigelow (1st woman to win Best Director Oscar), Jane Campion, Mira Nair, Sofia Coppola, Debra Granik
  • Art – Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keefe, Mary Cassatt, Käthe Kollwitz
  • Singer-songwriters – Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Joan Baez, Indigo Girls, Carole King, Dolly Parton, Patti Smith, Kate Bush, Tracy Chapman, Tori Amos
  • Journalism – Ethel Payne, Nellie Bly, Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters, Connie Chung, Katie Couric
  • U.S. Politics – Edith Nourse Rogers (1st woman elected to U.S. Congress), Carol Mosely Braun (1st & only African-American woman elected to U.S. Senate), Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Condoleeza Rice, Janet Napolitano, Ella T. Grasso
  • International politics – Angela Merkel, Michele Bachelet, Indira Ghandi, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
  • Military – Joan of Arc, Deborah Sampson (first U.S. female soldier on record), Ann E. Dunwoody (only woman w/ rank of 4-star general)
  • Sports – Billie Jean King, Flo-Jo, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Lisa Leslie, Mia Hamm
  • Science – Marie Curie, Rachel Carson, Hypatia, Sally Ride, Shirley Ann Jackson, Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Mary Leakey, Dorotea Bucca
  • Mathematics – Marie-Sophie Germain, Sofia Kovalevskaya
  • Medicine – Elizabeth Blackwell, Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Clara Barton

When I spent a week in NYC in January for Soapbox Feminist Winter Term, I ended my trip by visiting the Brooklyn Museum.  I went specifically to see Judy Chicago’s infamous exhibit The Dinner Party.  A powerful feminist installation piece, it consists of a massive triangular-shaped banquet table with 39 place settings.  Each plate, utensils, chalice and placemat decorated with colors and iconography unique for the intended guests: various famous women throughout history and myth.  I thought about what it would be like to sit down and eat dinner, talking with all those women: Bodica, Elizabeth I, Sojourner Truth, Mary Wollstonecraft, Sacajawea, Georgia O’Keefe, Virginia Woolf.  I stood in awe in that room, humbled by the power and scope of Chicago’s vision.  An equitable world filled with sisterly camaraderie.

As I frequently lament (I know, I know…sometimes I’m a broken record) women and their stories are somehow seen as lesser than men’s: less important, less noble, less substantial.  We need to stop undermining their experiences and lives.  Women’s History Month reminds us that we need to celebrate all of the wonderful accomplishments women have achieved in art, history, film and medicine.  So let’s embrace the stories and experiences of women…of our mothers, sisters, daughters, grandmothers, friends…and ourselves.

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One thought on “Why Women’s History Month Matters

  1. Fun fact: Bette Nesmith Graham, inventor of White-Out, was also the mother of The Monkees’ Mike Nesmith. Thanks to her genius and the fortune she amassed, he doesn’t have to participate in bullshit Monkees reunion tours with Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz. Seriously.

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