Opinion: The interesting origins of Women’s History Month
Women’s History Month is a time for all of us to consider how women throughout history have impacted our lives and land in simple and profound ways.
While most of us know that March is Women’s History Month, few of us know how it came to be. Even I, who live and breathe women and leadership, was a bit fuzzy on the details. I assumed it had something to do with suffrage, and maybe International Women’s Day, but had no clue that socialists and Title IV were involved. Here’s how it happened.
It started out as National Women’s Day on Feb. 28, 1909. It took place in Manhattan and was sponsored by the Socialist Party of America to commemorate the garment factory workers who went on strike to create better working conditions. Women rallied for the right to vote and gender equality.
A year later, a similar group of women convened in Copenhagen as activists and political organizers. One attendee, a German named Clara Zetkin, suggested that an International Women’s Day should be a global holiday on March 8. Seventeen countries agreed. It took 64 years for it to catch on in the U.S., when the United Nations began to sponsor it in 1975.
Meanwhile, in California, Title IX, the 1972 law to help prevent gender discrimination in the United States educational athletic system, was meeting resistance with school principals. In 1977, a task force was created to rally support from both schools and communities, and the group suggested a Women’s History Week celebration. They had it in early March to coincide with International Women’s Day. It gained momentum, and in 1980, President Jimmy Carter declared that March 8 was officially the start of National Women’s History Week.
In his presidential proclamation, Carter said: “From the first settlers who came to our shores, from the first American Indian families who befriended them, men and women have worked together to build this nation. 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.”
And there’s even a Utah angle: that same year, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and Maryland Rep. Barbara Mikulski co-sponsored a joint resolution declaring the week of March 8, 1981, National Women’s History Week, ensuring it was not a one-time thing. And in 1987, Congress declared all of March to be Women’s History Month, and each year the National Women’s History Alliance selects a theme. This year is it one near and dear to my heart: #BreaktheBias.
The Utah Women & Leadership website (www.utwomen.org) has so many resources to get people educated about how to support women and overcome biases. For example, we just finished a full series of reports on understanding various types of sexist comments — made by both men and women — and ideas of ways to respond. Creating awareness is the key.
And, as we finish up the month of March, I encourage you to watch the state’s “International Women’s Day Celebration: What Women Learn, Lead & Lift,” which opens with a wonderful speech from Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson.
Women’s History Month is not just for women to learn about and celebrate other women. It is for all of us to consider how women throughout history have impacted our lives and land in simple and profound ways. The work and impact of all women matter: from daily acts of service in the home to running for and serving in Congress. Learning about women throughout history — including my sisters of color — can change how we think about the past. And how we think about the past influences the hope we see for the future.
Dr. Susan R. Madsen is the Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership in the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.