“For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.” –Virginia Woolf
Until rather recently, women’s history was virtually an unknown topic in the K-12 curriculum or in the general public consciousness. To address this situation, the Education Task Force of the Sonoma County Commission on the Status of Women initiated a “Women’s History Week” celebration in 1978.
The event surrounded the United Nations’ annual celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8, and was chosen as the focal point of the observance. The Sonoma County activities were met with an enthusiastic response, and dozens of schools planned special programs. More than 100 community women participated by doing special presentations in classrooms and an annual “Real Woman” essay contest drew hundreds of entries. The finale for the week was a celebratory parade and program held in the center of downtown Santa Rosa.
After gaining greater popularity over the next few years, and a continued lobbying effort by the National Women’s History Project, including a visit to the Women’s History Institute at Sarah Lawrence College, the celebratory event blossomed on a national level, and in 1981 Congress passed Pub. L. 97-28, which authorized and requested the president proclaim the week beginning March 7, 1982, as “Women’s History Week.” President Ronald Reagan issued the proclamation.
The National Women’s History Project, which was cofounded by Molly Murphy MacGregor in 1980, was a highly influential organization when it came to pressing the issue of an organized, national, recognition of women and their contributions to United States history. The mission of the organization was birthed out of the realization that only a mere 3 percent of content in mainstream history textbooks focused on the accomplishments of women. The Project started out as a remedy to that dismal statistic and has since established a nationwide presence as the No. 1 resource for information and material about the unfolding roles of women in American history.
Due to the National Women’s History Project’s influence, MacGregor was privileged to receive a very memorable and monumental phone call.
“I received a call and it was the White House calling for Molly MacGregor. (I initially put them on hold because I had no idea what to say; I had never received a call from the White House before.) Sarah Weddington, the assistant to the president, came on the line and told me that President Carter would be sending a message to the nation recognizing women’s history. That was huge.”
Following is an excerpt from President Jimmy Carter’s message to the nation designating March 2-8 as National Women’s History Week:
“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 . . . . Understanding the true history of our country will help us to comprehend the need for full equality under the law for all our people . . . . This goal can be achieved by ratifying the 27th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states that ‘Equality of Rights under the Law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.’”
Aside from a somewhat obvious need for the education, MacGregor credits her mother as an influence on her taking on the task of preserving women’s history.
“I discovered, as a high school social studies teacher, that I didn’t even know my own mother’s history,” she admitted. “She had passed by then and I realized that I never got to ask her about all that she had done. She was extraordinary. She did so much, taking care of me and my ill father. I do a lot in her name,” said MacGregor.
Year after year, Congress continued to pass joint resolutions designating a week in March as “Women’s History Week.” By 1986, 14 states had already declared March as Women’s History Month. Then in 1987 Congress passed Pub. L. 100-9 which designated the month of March 1987 as “Women’s History Month.”
Between 1988 and 1994, Congress passed additional resolutions requesting and authorizing the president to proclaim March of each year as Women’s History Month. Since 1995, presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama have issued a series of annual proclamations designating the month of March as Women’s History Month.
“I would say that the biggest accomplishment of the organization has been the countless celebrations that honor women in the community who wouldn’t normally get that recognition. It is inspiring to see what the so-called common woman can accomplish. It’s truly extraordinary the work that women have done and I couldn’t have imagined the impact this organization would have.”
MacGregor makes a valid point in that although names like Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Mother Theresa, and Eleanor Roosevelt can roll off the tongues of even the most elementary of history buffs, there are multitudes of women that go unrecognized; especially in instances of women of color.
An article in MadameNoire, the African American women’s lifestyle publication, identified a few women who played in those vital behind-the-scenes roles. The following are some of those and others that deserved to be included. The list is by no means exhaustive.
Ella Baker–An active civil rights leader in the 1930s who fought for civil rights for five decades, working alongside W.E.B Dubois, Thurgood Marshall, and Martin Luther King Jr., and was a mentor to Rosa Parks.
Diane Nash–A leader and strategist of the student wing of the Civil Rights Movement and a member of the Freedom Riders. She also helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Selma Voting Rights Committee campaign, which helped Blacks in the South get to vote.
Anna Arnold Hedgemen–A politician and writer, as well as the first African American woman to hold a mayoral cabinet position in New York.
Hallie Quinn Brown–an educator and popular lecturer known for protesting segregation of the Washington, D.C., Auditorium being used for the All-American Musical Festival of the International Council of Women, threatening that all Black performers would boycott the event if segregated seating were not ended. Two hundred Black entertainers did boycott the event and Black participants left in response to her speech.
Septima Poinsette Clark–an educator and civil rights activist who played a major role in the voting rights of African Americans. In 1920, while serving as an educator in Charleston, Clark worked with the NAACP to gather petitions allowing Blacks to serve as principals in Charleston schools.
Daisy Bates–an American civil rights activist, publisher and writer who played a leading role in the Little Rock integration crisis in 1957. Before that, Bates and her husband started their own newspaper in 1941 called the Arkansas State Press. The paper became a voice for civil rights even before the nationally recognized movement.
Gwendolyn Brooks–a highly regarded, much-honored poet, with the distinction of being the first Black author to win the Pulitzer Prize. She also was poetry consultant to the Library of Congress–the first Black woman to hold that position–and poet laureate of the state of Illinois.
Lani Guinier–The first woman of color appointed to a tenured professorship at the Harvard Law School and is now the Bennett Boskey Professor of Law. Before her Harvard appointment, she was a tenured professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Educated at Radcliffe College and Yale Law School, Guinier worked in the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice and then headed the voting rights project at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the 1980s.
Recognizing the importance of women’s history as well as African American history, the NWHP recently participated in the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority’s “Women’s Suffrage March 2013” in Washington, D.C., which brought together thousands of members and like-minded individuals and organizations.
The march marked the 100th anniversary of the Women’s Suffrage March of 1913, which according to Delta Sigma Theta, was the first public act performed by the sorority’s founders.
The popularity of women’s history celebrations continues to spread as more people are becoming aware of the contributions of women and girls. A the President’s Commission on the Celebration of Women in History in America recently sponsored hearings in many parts of the country. The Women’s Progress Commission will soon conduct hearings to promote interest in preserving areas that are relevant in American women’s history. Some of the groups promoting this interest are state historical societies, women’s organizations, and groups such as the Girl Scouts of the USA.
For more information on the National Women’s History Project, visit the organization’s website at www.nwhp.org.