From Margin To March: What To Make Of Women’s History Month

Women’s History Month is great, says Judith Rosenbaum, but what about the rest of the year? When people focus on women’s history in the form of a dedicated month, it doesn’t really move women’s history to the center—it just moves it to March.

Here’s a not-so-secret little secret about me: I’m a major women’s history geek. I can go on about the stories of women’s lives for hours. Want to know about Emma Goldman? Don’t get me started unless you’re free for the rest of the day. Curious about the history of the maxi pad? I’m your woman. At the drop of a hat, I can deliver an impassioned lecture about the cultural significance of Bella Abzug’s hat, or of my grandmother’s hat pin, or of the representations of gender in The Cat in the Hat. I’ve devoted my career to spreading the gospel (as it were) of women’s history at the Jewish Women’s Archive. Women’s history isn’t just what I do, it’s who I am.

So you’d think March—the Congressionally-proclaimed official Women’s History Month—would be the highlight of my year. But the truth is, I’ve come to dread it. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the burst of public programming about women. It’s a refreshing change to see women’s stories take center stage in virtually every medium. It’s one of the only times of the year when my particular expertise is in high demand. I should revel in it, no?

But there’s something disconcerting about Women’s History Month in the 21st century. The sudden attention to women’s contributions and experiences arises seemingly out of nowhere and just as quickly recedes, leaving the traditional historical narrative essentially unchanged for the other eleven months of the year.

There’s no doubt that something powerful happens when we focus on women’s lives as a distinct and worthy topic, moving them “from margin to center,” a shift feminists have long advocated. The problem is that, ultimately, the singular focus on women’s history in the form of a dedicated month doesn’t really move women’s history to the center; it moves it to March. Women’s history thus remains in its own kind of ghetto, still segregated from what we call “History.”

In assessing the meaning and impact of Women’s History Month, it’s worth considering its history. In 1979, Gerda Lerner—a pioneer in women’s history and the founder of the first graduate program in the field—organized a Summer Institute for Leaders of Women’s Organizations. The Institute brought together a diverse group of 43 women for 15 days of intensive study, leadership development, and community building. Inspired by the success of Women’s History Week programming in Sonoma County, California, led by one of their own, the women chose for their group project to “make the celebration of Women’s History Week a national event.” This required lobbying Congress for a joint resolution and securing the President’s approval. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter issued the first proclamation of National Women’s History Week (March 2-8, 1980), as has every President and Congress since then, expanding the celebration into Women’s History Month in 1987.

There is no doubt that Women’s History Month has been an important innovation. It offers the impetus and structure to bring women’s stories into mainstream curriculum, and has sparked the creation of numerous new educational resources and programs devoted to women’s contributions to our nation. But it also allows a certain complacency in the structure of history overall. It took seven years for the creators of Women’s History Week, and then the government at their urging, to recognize that one week of attention is insufficient. The expansion to Women’s History Month happened in 1987—that’s 25 years ago. Isn’t it high time to acknowledge that women’s history—which is, after all, the history of more than half of the population—deserves to be taught every day, not just in March?

As Gerda Lerner famously said, it is not sufficient to just “add women and stir.” The true goal of women’s history isn’t just to mix in a few new stories/ingredients, but rather to fundamentally change the recipe so that the final dish—history with a capital “H”—is forever altered. In other words, when done right, women’s history requires a radical rethinking of historical paradigms.

The history of Women’s History Month teaches us several lessons: 1) Learning about one’s history can be incredibly empowering. A relatively brief immersion in women’s history inspired the Institute participants to join together in collective action so that others could have access to the education they had just received. 2) Even in taking bold actions—like demanding a proclamation from Congress and the President—sometimes we start out thinking too small. Devoting one week out of the year to all of women’s history? Seriously? 3) But change sometimes works incrementally. First one week, then one month. The question is: What comes next?

Judith Rosenbaum is a feminist historian, educator, and writer, and director of public history at the Jewish Women’s Archive. She is a founder and blogger at Jewesses with Attitude and is currently working on an anthology that explores contemporary redefinitions of the “Jewish mother.” She lives in Boston with her husband and their hilarious and high-spirited five-year-old twins. You can find her on Twitter at @jahr.

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