A Brief History of Women’s History Month

Photo taken in Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. from Flickr 

Mallory Boring 
Arts & Entertainment Staff Writer

This March marks the 33rd annual celebration of Women’s History Month. What began as a week-long celebration of the contributions made by women to history and contemporary society was extended to a whole month in 1987.

The celebration falls in March to include International Women’s Day on March 8. The theme for Women’s History Month 2020 is “Valiant Women of the Vote,” honoring the women who fought and continue to fight for voting rights and suffrage rights for women. 

Women’s History Month is important because it recognizes the achievements, contributions, struggles, and lives of women that are and would be overlooked otherwise. 

There have been women involved in every aspect of American life from the country’s inception to the present day. The influences of women have been felt in fashion, politics, medicine, war, science, athletics and the arts even without proper recognition. Although the theme of this year’s Women’s History Month focuses on voting rights, it is important to remember that earning the right to vote is just one part of the struggle for true gender equality. 

Many of the changes to fashion made throughout time have been made by women. These changes were in many cases updates to clothes women wore to make them better suited to women’s health and activities. 

Amelia Bloomer, a social activist and fashion advocate encouraged women to embrace a less restrictive style of dress after noticing health hazards related to common garments such as corsets. 

Women have also been very involved in politics, even before the 19th amendment granted them the right to vote. 

In 1776, Abigail Adams wrote a now-famous letter imploring the founding fathers to “remember the ladies.” Since they did not, women like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth and many others had to fight for women’s suffrage. Jeanette Rankin, the first female elected to Congress also assisted in the passing of the 19th amendment. 

In more recent history, female politicians are breaking all kinds of glass ceilings. In 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed the first female justice on the U.S. Supreme Court and has since been followed by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a lifelong advocate for women’s rights. In 2006, congresswoman Nancy Pelosi became the first female Speaker of the House. Ten years later, Hilary Clinton became the first woman to be endorsed by a major party as a presidential candidate. The presence of these women in politics has made crucial legislature like Title IX, Roe v. Wade, The Equal Pay Act 1963 and the Violence Against Women Act 1994 attainable. 

Female activists have made a profound impact on American politics and life, as well. Rosa Parks, who sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, and Ruby Bridges, the first African American student to integrate a southern elementary school, are two of the women who aided the civil rights cause. Mexican-American journalist Jovita Idár advocated for women’s rights and the fair treatment of Mexican-Americans. Activist Wilma Mankiller was the first female Principle Chief of the Cherokee Nation and was dedicated to improving the lives of the Cherokees. Many more women of all different backgrounds have advocated for all kinds of causes and groups. 

There have also been many important women in the field of medicine. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in America to receive a medical degree, graduating first in her class despite facing discrimination. The foundation of the American Association of the Red Cross can be accredited to Clara Barton who tended to the Union Army during the Civil War. 

Women have had many important roles in warfare but in 1948 the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act allowed women full access to serve in the military. Before 1948 women participated as nurses, clerical workers, and in non-combat positions such as linguists and phone operators, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and the Women’s Army Corps. Charity Adams Earley was the leader of the first African American women unit of the army in WWII. After an impressive military career, Earley was involved in her home community of Dayton, Ohio. 

Though men dominate the STEM fields, many women have stood out for their work including Grace Hopper, Mae Jemison, Hedy Lamarr and Nettie Stevens. Hopper helped outline the fundamental operating principles of computing machines and earned both national and international recognition for her work. Astronaut Mae Jemison was the first African American woman to travel in space in addition to being both a doctor and an engineer. Hedy Lamarr is better known for her acting than she is her inventiveness despite having developed technology that served as the basis for WiFi, GPS and Bluetooth systems. Early American geneticist Nettie Stevens discovered the connection between chromosomes and sex and was one of the first American women recognized for her contributions to science. 

Female athletes of all kinds have faced and continue to face discrimination and inequalities that their male counterparts do not. Women first had to prove themselves able to participate in athletics like Katherine Switzer who hid her gender to be able to sign up for the Boston Marathon in 1967. WNBA players, hockey players, U.S. Women’s Nation Team players, tennis stars and more have long mentioned significant inequalities in the payment of female athletes compared to men. Two-time Olympian Aly Raisman is both a decorated gymnast and an advocate for survivors of sexual abuse and change within USA Gymnastics. 

Even before being afforded any equality under law, women were breaking barriers in arts and culture. Phillis Wheatley was enslaved for most of her life but published a collection of poems in 1773 making her the first African American woman to publish a book. Latin artist Carmen Herrera created innovative artwork that was unfortunately overlooked. Herrera’s work is now present in museums such as the Museum of Modern Art and the 104-year-old continues to create to this day. Actress Anna May Wong faced constant discrimination and landed stereotypical Asian roles but continued to follow her passion. After Wong’s death, the Asian-American Arts Awards named an award after her.

The right to vote is a major milestone in women’s history but it is ultimately only part of the fight for gender equality. On the 100 year anniversary of women’s right to vote, it is important to acknowledge the incredible things women have done and are currently doing because it proves that women have had as much influence on the world as men have. It is also important to remember that despite all the accomplishments there is still much work to be done to achieve true equality. 

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