By Denise Nicholas
What exactly is the significance of Women’s History Month? The title sits on the outskirts of our minds, acknowledged, like Black History Month, in a semi-conscious, rote kind of way. Most of us don’t know its history or importance to our overall self-perception, our sense of dignity as human beings. I decided to do at least some cursory digging to see if I could connect with the idea of Women’s History Month in a more visceral way. (The intellectual component is acknowledged.)
FACT: “As recently as the 1970’s, women’s history was virtually an unknown topic in the K-12 curriculum or in general public consciousness. To address this situation, the Education Task Force of the Sonoma County (California) Commission on the Status of Women initiated a ‘Women’s History Week’ celebration for 1978.” (The National Women’s History Project)
Something clarifies in my mind. In my high school American History class (in Michigan), there were three black students. Our text devoted exactly two paragraphs to slavery and the Civil War and never mentioned Reconstruction. Since I read outside of the school text, I decided to speak up about the dismissive treatment of this most important part of American History. I raised my little hand and got into quite a battle with the dim-witted history teacher. I did not back down. I spoke up because this treatment made me feel erased, unaccounted for, unimportant. But I knew I was important, that this attempt to sweep me under the carpet didn’t sit well in my stomach or my mind.
Fast forward to Black History Month: a corrective, a way of righting a historical wrong that kept reiterating in textbooks, movies, in every avenue of communication, that black people had no heroic or positive place in the history of this country. I daresay, no people who’ve ever rested their brogans on American soil have done more to push this country in the direction of its own Constitutional tenets than black people and been so little appreciated for it.
Examining the dynamic from a female point of view, I come up with the same musing. Women’s History Month exists because someone (or many!) decided to “UNHISTORY” us (WOMEN), to diminish us as human beings, to relegate our contributions to footnotes, card files and maybe the indexes… not a good position for easy reading or access, back in the corner somewhere, quiet. As with Black history, for Women’s History, you had to do “outside” reading, dig deeper and longer for the story, dust off the faces of so many incredible people who’ve made our lives richer and better for so many years, forgotten heroines who’ve truly done some of everything including killing the enemy, eradicating diseases, mothering the world, writing the treatise and the novel, flying the plane and verbally slapping some dumb bunny upside his head for treating US as if we were invisible.
Through insult and injury, women keep coming, demanding the rights guaranteed by the Constitution, demanding our place in the sun, our just rewards, our own light, acknowledgement of our contributions to this nation and to the world, the same respect given to men for equal accomplishment. It’s been and continues to be a long and winding road with many potholes!
Why is this kind of acknowledgement important? Why is it good to know the truth of Women’s History? Because the knowledge anoints you with a strong and positive sense of self that spurs you to even greater accomplishment. We do break. We do fall on our knees and throw in the towel. But when we are respected for who we are and what we’ve done, there is no breaking, there are no towels thrown about. The strength to go forward, the will to succeed, the desire to do more – these follow from acknowledgement of well-done deeds. To be sure, we’ve kept coming anyway, without the acknowledgement, because that is the firmament of the human spirit, to go forward, to fight the brambles and stumble through, doing the right thing ANYWAY.
The National Women’s History Project this year is honoring the following women:
Emma Hart Willard (1787-1870) – Women Higher Education Pioneer
Charlotte Forten Grimke (1837-1914) – Freedman Bureau Educator
Annie Sullivan (1866-1936) – Disability Education Architect
Gracia Molina de Pick (b.1929) – Feminist Educational Reformer
Okolo Rashid (b.1949) – Community Development Activist and Historical Preservation Advocate
Brenda Flyswithhawks (b.1950) – American Indian Advocate and Educator
I encourage you to visit their website (nwhp.org) during the month of March, to toast these women and the millions of others who’ve lived unacknowledged lives and done remarkable things just because. Be kind to a stranger, a woman whose shoulders may be burdened beyond anything you can imagine, who may only need a smile and a hello as you pass her by. That’s a simple and gentle way to acknowledge ourselves and others, an act that can resonate through an entire day and beyond.