by Denise Berger
Annually in March, around the world we honor the impact of women in history, with official international recognition taking place on March 8th. Why was an official day, week and, finally, (in the USA) a month declared for this honor? On the surface it might seem peculiar, doesn't it? We certainly do not have a similar designation to honor men. Dale Spender in the Forward of Historica's Women suggests we officially recognize the impact of women in history now because throughout time the record keepers have not been female and therefore history, in and of itself, documents men's achievements.
"What are the places and roles of women in society? Women and men have debated these questions in caves, homes, parliaments, churches, universities, medical offices, coffeeshops and bars... the answers have been numerous - there is not just one place for women, but many." Prior to the 1970s there was very little focus on the chronicles of women in history. And yet, we can now all point to many women who made an impact on society through their presence, tenacity, values and passions: Ancient mythical goddesses known for power and influence; Cleopatra of Egypt, one of the most renowned female leaders; the Amazons, a tribe of female warriors; the philanthropist, Lady Godiva; prioress and theologian, Heloise, of the Oratory of the Paraclete in France; victorious Lady Agnes Randolph of Scotland; the most famous martyr, Joan of Arc; leadership force behind the man, Hino Tomiko, wife of 8th shogun in Japan; respected powerful leader, Empress Catherine of Russia; Marie Antoinette; Amelia Earheart; Florence Nightingale, to name only a few. The feminist movement of the 1960s brought out the interest for greater visibility of women through the ages and simultaneously raised the aspirations of women to study their impact. So, while older forms of capturing history focused almost exclusively on politics, by the 1970s history books began casting a wider net to include areas of social history such as ethnic dynamics, public health, and economic status.
While this greater visibility began in the 60s, this decade was not actually the beginning of a movement towards celebrating women’s history. Let’s take a step back in time:
- The first national woman’s day was declared in the USA in 1909.
- The following year, over 100 women from 17 countries unanimously agreed to the proposal to honor the women’s rights movement with an international women’s day.
- 1911 proved to be a tumultuous year: while Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland made March 19th the official International Women’s Day and women and men campaigned for women’s rights to vote, work, hold public office, the Triangle of Fire in New York City claimed the lives of over 100 working women immigrants. Working conditions and US labor laws became a major focus for subsequent International Women’s Days.
- By World War II, the United Nations was involved in promoting equality for women. So, in 1945, the Charter of the United Nations became the first international agreement to be signed, proclaiming gender equality as a fundamental human right. For many years thereafter, the UN has held an annual International Women’s Day conference to coordinate international efforts for women’s rights.
- Finally, in the USA, at the start of the 1980s, the week of March 8th was officially declared Women’s History Week to coincide with March 8th that had become the official International Women’s Day and by 1987 the month of March was declared Women's History Month.
While great strides have been made in shifting societal attitudes about gender equality, and we find ourselves in the new millennium with a great degree of emancipation, there are still issues that need to be addressed. “With more women in the boardroom, greater equality in legislative rights, an increased critical mass of women’s visibility as impressive role models in every aspect of life… the unfortunate fact is that women are still not paid equally to that of their male counterparts, women still are not present in equal numbers in business or politics, and globally women’s education, health and violence against them is worst than that of men.” Let’s not forget that there is a journey ahead.
But, for now, on every March 8th, we applaud the achievements of women through the ages and take pride in our own personal milestones as part of the International Women’s Day celebrations. As my daughter will march side-by-side with her co-ed teammates at the opening day little league parade on March 8th, I -for one- will not take for granted the many years of hope, action and desire by women and men before us who have worked hard to develop equal status for females and whose passionate commitment have been chipping away at the barriers.
Abigail Adams, wife of President John Adams and mother to President John Quincy Adams, lacked formal education –as did other women in their day– but she was an avid reader and writer and left behind a voluminous diary of correspondence about every day life during the revolution. She proved to be deeply committed to women’s rights and stated in 1776 before the formation of the Bill of Rights, “I long to hear that you have declared an independency, and by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies…” I think she would be proud of this celebration, don’t you?