Writing Women Back into History
Opinion By Dr. Ellie Walsh
Women’s History Month began as a week-long, local event in 1978 when an education task force in Sonoma County, CA declared a Women’s History Week. It acted out of concern about the lack of materials on women’s history in K-12 curriculum. Soon after, the newly-founded National Women’s History Project successfully lobbied Congress to designate a Women’s History Week in 1981 and in 1987, the entire month of March as National Women’s History Month.
This trajectory, from a weekly to a monthly celebration, parallels that of Black History Month. Indeed, the African American Civil Rights movement greatly influenced the development of Women’s History as a subfield of United States history. Just as African Americans had demanded research on and recognition of their experiences, so did women. At the most basic level, Women’s History Month represents official recognition of women as historical actors worthy of our study. It affirms the value of women.
Why is it important to study women’s history? Women’s history is national history, the history of labor, of the Civil Rights Movement, of immigration, of war and peace, of race, sexuality and gender, of colonization. In other words, women’s history is human history and critical to a fuller understanding of human experience. Women’s history recovers not only women’s various roles in different times and places, but also helps us better understand the larger contexts in which women lived and acted, including critical events, dynamics, and power structures. For example, examining women active in the anti-slavery movement reveals ways that people excluded from formal electoral politics managed to influence those who held formal political power. It uncovers racial, class, and regional conflicts that shaped not only the abolitionist movement, but also local, regional, and national politics.
Additionally, women’s history reveals not only the achievements of “exceptional” women, but the challenges that majorities of women faced and how they responded to those. Though often subordinated based on their race, class, and gender, women have not been passive. Uncovering the active roles of women in various historical contexts helps us see women as agents. It provides us all with role models. As with all kinds of history, women’s history helps us better understand our own historical moment.
In recognition of the 100th anniversary of women earning the right to vote, the official theme of this year’s Women’s History Month is “Valiant Women of the Vote.” The fight for women’s suffrage reflects the conflicts, divisions, different goals and methods, limits and achievements of this broad social movement. In other words, it reflects the complexities of human experience. I invite you to visit one of the many websites dedicated to celebrating Women’s History Month, including https://womenshistorymonth.gov/about/ and to look for Women’s History Month activities here at GSU.
Women’s History Month reminds us of the importance and value of examining women’s experiences, a reminder that we need. I look forward to the time when women’s history is more fully integrated into all historical research and all history classes.
The author is Associate Professor History and Affiliated Faculty of the Gender and Sexuality Studies Program.