Like Black History Month, National Women’s History Month offers a great opportunity each year to celebrate the achievements and advancements of those who have been largely undervalued in our society.
It’s a moment to reflect on where we are today, to widen our historical lens. On the one hand, there’s been substantial progress for women in a relatively short period of time. Still, social change has come incrementally and unevenly, and often despite stiff resistance. And let’s be clear: We still have a ways to go, especially in overcoming the challenges women face as they get older, dealing with the double discrimination of sexism and ageism— what’s known as “gendered ageism.”
More on that later. But first, a short history of a long journey.
By most accounts, Women’s History Month took roughly 80 years to evolve, going back to March 8, 1908, when 15,000 women marched through New York City, demanding shorter work hours, better pay, voting rights and an end to child labor. Their slogan was “Bread and Roses”: bread for economic security, and roses, symbolizing a better quality of life.
A year later, members of the Socialist party organized a gathering they called the first National Woman’s Day. The idea soon made its way to Europe, where on March 8, 1911, International Women's Day was formally honored by Germany, Austria, Denmark, and Switzerland. Russian feminists, too, had a strong influence on the beginnings of the Russian Revolution, with Vladimir Lenin making Women's Day a Soviet Holiday in 1917.
Meanwhile, the Woman’s Suffrage Movement had been marching forward since the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, leading to the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. In the aftermath, many suffragists became actively involved in lobbying for legislation to protect women workers from abuse and unsafe conditions, and a second wing of the post-suffrage movement launched the birth control movement, initiated by a public health nurse, Margaret Sanger. This movement not only endorsed educating women about existing birth control methods, it spread the conviction that meaningful freedom for modern women meant they must be able to decide for themselves whether they would become mothers, and when. (Hard to fathom, but until a 1936 Supreme Court decision, birth control information was classified as “obscene.”)
Probably because of its connection to socialism, International Women’s Day went unrecognized in the U.S. until 1975. That’s when the United Nations officially began sponsoring the day on March 8, declaring that “the full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms requires the active participation, equality, and development of women.”
The monthlong recognition of women evolved from a weeklong celebration of women’s contributions to culture, history and society organized by the school district of Sonoma, California, in 1978. Presentations were given at dozens of schools; hundreds of students participated in a “Real Woman” essay contest; and a parade was held in downtown Santa Rosa. It was a hit, and a few years later, the idea caught on within communities, school districts and organizations across the country.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter issued the first presidential proclamation declaring the week of March 8 as National Women’s History Week. Congress followed suit, passing a resolution establishing a national celebration, and in 1987, it expanded the event to the entire month of March.
While it took a while for us to celebrate Women’s History Month, I’m glad we got there. It gives us an on opportunity to acknowledge all those who advanced the Women’s Rights Movement—including the second wave of feminists like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, whom I learned about during the 1960s and ’70s—as well as the many women who have been breaking down barriers and shattering stereotypes for decades.
Widely known public figures, for example, like the U.S. Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg; a host of political leaders like Kamala Harris, Hillary Clinton, Indira Gandhi, Angela Merkel and Margaret Thatcher; and thousands of prominent women leaders in business and finance, where there were once few CEOs like former Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham.
I also enjoy celebrating the brilliant, yet little-known women in the fields of science and technology, such as the scientists and mathematicians profiled in the movie, “Hidden Figures,” and book “Rise of the Rocket Girls,” who played critical roles in the Space Race era.
Women’s Month has given me an opportunity to honor everyday women as well—in particular, an individual who’s had a deep personal impact on me, my mother, Leslie Adele Roel. As an impressionable kid growing up during the 1950s and ’60s, I was lucky to have a mom who was already a role model for the forthcoming generation of “liberated women.” She was a young mother of four boys, a Cuban immigrant who fought off pervasive stereotypes about immigrants, Hispanics, and women who were purportedly content being suburban housewives.
She raised a family, but also went back to school to get a master’s degree to teach and tutor Spanish. She was an active volunteer in several community organizations and was instrumental in starting and growing a local concert association that brought renowned classical musicians to our area. She was a talented porcelain painter who exhibited in local art shows, while teaching weekly classes to elderly women. And yes, she would complain about art historians who noted that famed impressionist August Renoir began his career as porcelain painter (fair enough), but where were descriptions of women porcelain painters through history?
In her later years, my mom also gave me a window into the dual affliction of ageism and sexism facing older women. Ageism is tough for men, too, but it’s especially tough for women. Somehow, American women—who statistically live five years longer than men—are not supposed to accept the realities of graceful aging.
They’re reluctant to reveal their age—with good reason, when confronting discrimination in the workplace. And they’re constantly bombarded by marketers promoting “anti-aging” products to reduce wrinkles, eliminate gray and recontour their problematic older bodies. Underlying message: older women are less desirable, less sexual, less feminine, less valuable.
So, I felt some ambivalence when I found out that the theme for this year’s National Women’s History Month is “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories.” That is, women in all forms of media “who have devoted their lives and talents to producing art, pursuing truth, and reflecting the human condition decade after decade.”
Of course, it’s important to recognize the ascension of women in the media, and I’ve noticed that there are, in fact, a lot more women on virtually every venue, including that traditional male bastion, sports talk shows. You can see an array of races and ethnicities—but few older women. There have been some notable exceptions, journalists such as the late Barbara Walters, Andrea Mitchell, and Christiane Amanpour. For the most part, however, it’s a young, hip crowd, mostly fashionable blondes, whenever possible.
Our notion of “liberating” women from traditional male stereotypes seems stuck in the Virginia Slims ads that first appeared in the late 1960s—“the first cigarette for women only.” I’m sure many of you remember the slogan, “You’ve come a long way, baby,” and the media images of sexy, slim (naturally) women, in ads like one featuring a man wearing an apron and preparing a meal in the kitchen as a woman hugs him, cigarette in hand.
The text reads, “Equality comes with no apron strings attached.” Too bad that the emancipation of women had to be achieved through smoking—apparently becoming equal with men by lowering women’s life expectancy to match theirs.
Ultimately, what I learned from Mom in her later years is that honoring women requires more than celebrating their achievements, the breaking of glass ceilings and progress in obtaining equal opportunities at work and elsewhere. Indeed, closing the gender gap in pay continues to be a worthy goal, since women still earn an average of 82% of what men earn—a figure that hasn’t changed in 20 years. But as we all get older, the biggest challenge to confronting gendered ageism is learning how we all can better take care of each other as we age.
Through much of women’s history, it has been women who have assumed the major burden of caregiving for others in our society, often unpaid, and with little support—or respect.
As we move into the next chapter of women’s history, it’s clear that advancing women means providing a path to fulfillment, support and purpose all the way through life.
To accomplish that, our society’s system of caregiving must change—and both women and men must be part of that change.
– Ron Roel