Editor’s note: A version of this piece originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Sisters U Magazine.
Every March, inevitably I am asked, “When is Men’s History Month?”
And I always reply, “The other 11 months of the year.”
As an English professor who teaches courses focused on gender, I find I have to spend a lot of time explaining the importance of focusing on women during the month of March. Too often, history books, literary canons and political arenas are overrun with the accomplishments of men while women’s contributions are sidelined as footnotes and sidebars. And too often, my students’ questions about the purpose of Women’s History Month reveal just how necessary it is.
Two decades ago, I started teaching about women’s history when I was a high school English teacher. I saw quickly that my students knew very little about women’s issues and wanted to introduce them to this body of knowledge. Because there was no room in the curriculum, I offered students the chance to do an extra credit assignment I called the Women’s History Challenge: a set of 50 questions about famous women. Many of my students jumped at the chance.
Around the same time, I ventured deep into our department’s book closet in search of a class set of any book written by a woman that I could use in my British literature course. I happened upon 30 copies of Jane Eyre. When I handed out the books, a male student proclaimed, “This is a girl book!” I reminded them that we had already read several novels featuring male protagonists and asked if they thought of them as boy books. And shouldn’t we just think of them as books without gendering them based on a cover picture? Conversations like that one have energized my students and me over the years and, over the years, Women’s History Month has changed.
March officially became Women’s History Month in 1987 when President Ronald Reagan wrote the first public proclamation declaring:
Women's History Month is a time for us to recognize and salute women's contributions to the American family and to society. Women have been making these contributions since this continent was explored and settled and America won its independence. Women continue to strengthen the family and enrich our lives with intellectual gifts, creative talents, and an indomitable spirit—in business, government, volunteer activities, religious life, education, health, the military, sports, the arts, and many other areas.
Though Reagan’s proclamation focused on the role of women in the home as their primary contribution, the message that women’s work matters was a revolutionary one. Beginning that same year, the National Women’s History Project (NWHP) attached a theme to the March celebration to help women focus their programs and events. Themes focus on women’s power and voice and have ranged from Women Change America (2005) to Women Taking the Lead to Save Our Planet (2009) to last year’s theme of Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives.
This year’s theme, Working to Form a More Perfect Union: Honoring Women in Public Service and Government, recognizes “women who have shaped America’s history and its future through their public service and government leadership.” Sixteen women will be honored by the NWHP, including Dorothy C. Stratton, who served as executive director of the Girl Scouts of the United States of America, and Betty Mae Tiger Jumper, the first woman to chair the Seminole Tribal Council and adviser to President Richard Nixon.
The United States’ Women’s History Month celebration is part of a larger global project that centers around International Women’s Day, March 8. A national holiday in some countries, International Women’s Day was first celebrated in 1908 in an effort to draw attention to the lack of voting rights and fair labor conditions for women. Thanks to German activist Clara Zetkin, an international conference of women decided to create one day to honor the contributions women make to the world, and the day has been recognized ever since. Around the globe on March 8, women come together to march and honor each other for successes that aren’t often honored the other 364 (or 365!) days in a calendar year. This year’s theme is #PledgeForParity in recognition of worldwide efforts to ensure economic justice—and to attempt to close the gender wage gap well before the expected date of 2133!
Until history textbooks, Congress and assigned reading lists reflect gender parity, Women’s History Month is a crucial time to remind the nation and the world of women’s important work and the barriers that exist to full gender equality. I have made it my lifelong commitment to teach such texts and to help students see the disparities in their education. Until that lesson is obsolete, we need Women’s History Month on the calendar.
To learn more about these celebrations—and to get your students excited about Women’s History Month—encourage your class to follow these organizations on Twitter: The National Women’s History Museum (@womenshistory), The National Women’s History Project (@officialNWHP) and International Women’s Day (@womensday). With the right preparation, maybe this will be the year we won’t have to explain why there’s no Men’s History Month.
Clemens is the associate professor of non-Western literatures at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.