“Well behaved women rarely make history” ~ Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
I often wear a t-shirt bearing historian Ulrich’s advice because people react with a chuckle and it starts conversations. Conversations we need because women’s history is rarely given its due.
March is Women’s History Month, so designated because history has largely been framed through the male lens, recorded by male pens, and thus not surprisingly showcases men as the protagonists and the leaders; women, if noticed at all, play supporting roles (unless of course they take “male” personas, such as generals).
Yet women were everywhere, giving birth to everyone, among many other accomplishments. I’ve often wondered whether, if women had been documenting history for the last millennium, keeping peace and making things rather than making war and destroying things would be the central organizing narrative.
Then, once history is made, it seems so normal that it can easily be taken for granted. When I asked my grandson if he would vote for a woman for president, he responded “Yeaaah” in that drawn out way that made it sound as though I had three heads to ask such a dumb question.
And Sunday’s New York Times front page boasted a photo of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde—with little comment about what a power shift those two symbolize. Yet, as Lagarde said at the recent Women in the World conference, the global financial meltdown might not have occurred if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters—or at least Lehman Brothers and Sisters. History has consequences for the future.
Women’s History: A Revolutionary Shift
Until the 1970’s, the topic of women’s history was virtually nonexistent in public consciousness. It wasn’t until 1978 that the Education Task Force of the Sonoma County (California) Commission on the Status of Women first initiated a “Women’s History Week”. They chose the week of March 8 to make International Women’s Day—established in 1909 to highlight the need for a strong working women’s agenda—part of it.
The response was so overwhelming that by 1987, the entire month of March was designated as Women’s History Month by a bi-partisan Congressional resolution.
The inception of Women’s History Month marked a revolutionary shift in thinking about whose actions are worth recording. Yet most history curricula still under-report women’s history and history made by women.
When I show students in my Women, Power, and Leadership class, most of whom are Women and Gender Studies majors or minors, photos of two dozen of the most influential women in American history, few recognize anyone other than perhaps Gloria Steinem in her aviator glasses. They all recognize pop culture icons such as race car driver Danica Patrick. But few if any know about Ada Lovelace who created the underlying concepts that enabled Steve Jobs to envision Apple. She’s been called the first computer programmer.
Ever hear of her? Not likely.
History Sheds Light On Today’s Struggles
That’s why during our annual attention to Women’s History Month it’s as important to learn and to teach history as to celebrate it.
With recent legislation on the state and federal levels seeking to force women to endure jamming unnecessary ultrasound probes into their vaginas, allow employers to deny women health services, while the Paycheck Fairness Act languishes without a hearing in Congress and the motherhood penalty for female employees remains rampant, it’s urgent that women’s historic and contemporary struggles for our most fundamental rights are studied and understood.
Eleanor Roosevelt realized this and that’s why she became more or less the first blogger. She wrote “My Day”, a 500-word syndicated newspaper column six days a week from 1935 until her death in 1962 in order to influence policy through a medium accessible to a woman. “Without equality,” she said, “there can be no democracy.” She was more noted for her work to advance racial equality, but she clearly included women in that declaration: “The battle for the individual rights of women is one of long standing and none of us should countenance anything which undermines it.”
The gravel-voiced former congresswoman, Bella Abzug, once said, “Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel.”
We’ll know we have social and political gender parity when women’s visibility in the making of history, and in the telling of it, will be, well, just normal.
This article originally ran in a blog post for FORBESWOMAN. Check it out here.