Celebrating Women’s History Month: Honoring Women Trailblazers and Women’s Contributions
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s the power of using your voice.” — Michelle Obama
Society’s traditional standard forces women into an image, an image that consists of a woman who doesn’t speak out and follows what is “expected” of her. If a woman doesn’t fit this image, then almost always they are criticized. History has shown that women have fought extremely hard just to gain the same rights as the rest of society, rights that our country so proudly preaches to have. In the past few decades, more so now than ever, women have been making headlines and achieving the same levels of respect and recognition as men, who have never fought for such rights in the same way as women. So who are the women who have continuously paved the way for future generations, and how do we remember them today?
Observed annually for the entire month of March, Women’s History Month celebrates women's trailblazers and their contributions to society. The National Women’s History Alliance designates a theme each year, with this year’s theme continuing last year’s: “Valiant Women of the Vote: Refusing to Be Silenced.” This theme honors the battle for women’s suffrage, especially in light of the recent, historic election for women’s rights.
The 19th Amendment on granting women the right to vote was arguably the most important milestone in women’s rights history. Now, in the 21st century, women voters play an invaluable role in elections--in the 2020 election, for example, women cast a record number of votes, with 57% of women and 91% of Black women voting for President Biden. (Experts say that the Black community carried President Biden to victory.)
Women’s suffrage is often associated with extraordinary women such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Anthony began her campaign for women’s rights in 1853, urging for the expansion of property rights for married women. In 1856, she joined the American Anti-Slavery Society, pushing for voting rights of not only women but also enslaved African Americans. Stanton’s journey into women’s rights began in 1848 when she organized the first women’s rights convention, the Seneca Falls Convention, with other notable activists Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, and Martha Wright. Anthony and Stanton met in 1851, becoming close friends and working together to push Congress to take action. Stanton later became the first president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, with Anthony following to become the second. Although they both passed away before its ratification, the 19th Amendment finally granted women the right to vote in 1920.
Women in Art
Women in the arts have faced disparaging conditions for millennia, and they still do today. In 2019, the National Endowment for the Arts found that nearly half--45.8%--of visual artists in the US are women, but those women earn an average of only 74¢ for every dollar made by male artists. Despite these struggles, women have shown their prowess and strength throughout history, leaving their own unique, powerful impacts on society.
Frida Kahlo was a Mexican painter in the early 1900s famous for her vivid self-portraits. In 1925, at 18 years old, Kahlo was seriously injured in a bus accident and had to undergo numerous medical operations throughout her life. It was during her recovery that she taught herself how to paint, expressing themes of identity, suffering, and the human body. “Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?” Kahlo said.
Maya Angelou was a civil rights activist and award-winning author and poet, best known for her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which became the first nonfiction bestseller by an African American woman. In her childhood, Angelou experienced firsthand racism and discrimination. When she was 7, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend and faced extreme trauma for many years. In her works, she discusses racism, sexism, and peace.
“The caged bird sings with a fearful trill,
of things unknown, but longed for still,
and his tune is heard on the distant hill,
for the caged bird sings of freedom.”
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Amanda Gorman, a poet, and activist, recently became the youngest inaugural poet in US history after speaking at President Biden’s inauguration. In 2017, Gorman was appointed as the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate. “There is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it,” Gorman said in her inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb.”
Women In Sports
Serena Williams is an African American tennis player who has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles. Williams has created inspiration for so many young colored girls showing the world what she, and others like her, are capable of. Williams made her professional tennis career debut in 1995 at the age of 14. Throughout her entire career, Williams has been criticized and most recently pitted against another woman of color, Naomi Osaka, who she first versed in 2018.
Osaka is a Japanese professional tennis player and a four-time Grand Slam singles champion. Osaka is biracial and was born in Japan and then moved to the U.S. when she was three years old. At only 23 years old, she is currently ranked second by the Women's Tennis Association.
Often, the media puts women of color against each other in a society where race still creates bias and unfair rules. In 2018, Osaka became the first Japanese player ever to win a Grand Slam title by beating Williams. However, the media and fans were quick to pick sides and began criticizing Osaka even though the anger was due to the umpire being unfair to Williams. Williams told the audience “I just want to tell you guys she played well. This is her first Grand Slam. … Let’s not boo anymore.” Williams and Osaka were pitted against each other and both played amazingly well, yet Osaka’s winning response was met with negativity that should not have occurred.
Women in Science
Women make up nearly half of the US workforce, yet they are severely underrepresented in the STEM field--as of 2019, the US Census Bureau found that only 27% of STEM workers are female. Despite improvements in representation, women still experience large disparities in pay, treatment, and success compared to their male counterparts.
A pioneering woman in chemistry was Dorothy Hodgkin. She obtained a Ph.D. from Cambridge University in 1936 and later researched the structure of insulin, a crucial hormone that controls blood sugar levels--many with diabetes cannot survive without insulin. In 1964, Hodkin won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry and became the third woman ever to win a Nobel Prize for Chemistry and the fifth woman to win a Nobel Prize in science.
A mathematician for NASA, Katherin Johnson played an astronomical role in the US space missions. She earned a BS in math as West Virginia State College and later joined NASA; she analyzed the trajectory of the Freedom 7 mission, America's first human spaceflight, and famously calculated the orbital and trajectory equations for the Friendship 7 mission, all by hand. In 2015, former President Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor.
Jane Goodall immediately comes to mind when talking about primates and chimpanzees. One of Goodall’s most famous discoveries is that chimpanzees make and use tools; her field research has dramatically changed global attitudes on wildlife and the relationship between humans and animals. work dramatically transformed the public’s attitudes toward wildlife and conservation. In 2002, she became the UN Messenger of Peace.
Women in Politics
The history of politics, especially in the US, has been filled with men, even more so of white men. Women in politics are degraded, and their gender is often used as an insult to damage their image by opposing politicians and followers. Women of color especially face racism and bias in politics, and even though they face these challenges, they still fight to create a better world for the next generations.
Vice President Kamala Harris is the first female Asian and African American Vice President in US history. Harris was the attorney general of California and Senator of California before being tapped to run as Vice President with President Joe Biden. Having Harris as Vice President was a win for so many females, especially those of color, and showed that minority groups also have the chance to help change the world and reach these high positions. Michelle Obama was the former first lady of the U.S. and also the first African American to hold this position. Obama was previously an attorney and is the author of several books, including her most recent novel Becoming, published in 2018. Being a woman of color in a position that had previously only been held by mainly white women caused her to receive criticism and hate, mostly motivated by racism. Despite this, Obama held strong and was a role model to many women who looked up to her as someone dedicated to creating change in areas such as poverty, education, nutrition, physical activity, and healthy eating.
Malala Yousafzai is a Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate. At 23 years old, Yousafzai first became known for her advocacy for female education and women’s rights. However, when she was 15 years old, she was a victim of attempted murder by the Taliban who deemed her a threat due to her activism. Her near-death experience became known across the world, helping others recognize the injustice she and many other girls were facing if they tried to speak up for their rights. The responses led to the first Right to Education Bill in Pakistan being passed. Since then, Yousafzai has continued her education and graduated from Oxford University. Despite these challenges faced, Yousafzai has continued her activism journey and co-founded the Malala Fund, a non-profit organization aimed at improving girls’ education.
Another female role model was Ruth Bader Ginsberg, an American lawyer, and jurist who later served as an associate justice of the US Supreme Court from 1993 until her death in September 2020. Ginsberg, who was nominated as a Justice by President Bill Clinton, was named one of Forbes Magazine's 100 Most Powerful Women from 2004 through 2011. Apart from being only the second female Justice, she was an icon toward fellow females due to her crusade for women’s rights as well as her fierce attitude to push barriers. Ginsberg's death created fear in many females and those who Ginsberg stood for due to the fact that someone would have to replace her, and that someone would most likely be a Justice who believed in the opposite of her causes. This response further proves how much women and others looked up to RBG as not only an icon, but as someone, they could put their trust and support in knowing that someone was on their side to help give them a voice.
Underrated Women Changemakers
In 400 BC Greece, it was illegal for women to practice medicine. However, a woman by the name of Agnodice continued to learn and practice it, helping many patients. She was later allowed to continue her medical practice once her patients came to her defense to prove that she was a great physician. She is credited with being one of the first female gynecologists.
Later, in 1911 Japan, Raichō Hiratsuka, an editor, writer, and political activist co-founded Japan’s first all-women-run literary journal that questioned women’s traditional roles. She also helped campaign for an extension of women's legal rights, higher education, and welfare benefits.
Similarly, in 1951 Egypt, Doria Shafik helped lead a women’s rights movement with 1,500 other women in which they stormed Parliament protesting for full political rights, pay equality, and reforms to personal status laws. These actions helped pave the way for women’s right to vote in 1956.
Next, in 2016 Zimbabwe, two-child brides’, Loveness Mudzuru & Ruvimbo Tsopodzi, the case was ruled in their favor by Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court stating that no one in the country was allowed to enter into marriages until the age of 18. This meant that not even customary law unions would be allowed before those in question reached 18.
The History of Women’s History Month
How did Women’s History Month officially start? In the 1970s, the Education Task Force of the Sonoma County Commission in California realized that women’s history was practically unknown in schools’ curriculum and in the general public. In 1978, they initiated the first-ever Women’s History Week, which the commission carefully chose to take place on the week of March 8, International Women’s Day. The movement gained traction and spread throughout the country, where some communities held parades and hosted educational presentations. Even after 1978, communities continued to celebrate Women’s History Week annually.
With widespread support, President Jimmy Carter officially declared the week of March 8 to be National Women’s History Week. Many states were prompted to develop a curriculum that covered women’s history, and by 1986, 14 states had already declared March as Women’s History Month. Congress officially designated March as Women’s History Month in 1987.
Women’s History Month reminds us all about the crucial contributions that women have made, not only toward gender equality but also toward science, art, and sports. Now more than ever, after Sarah Everard’s killing and the Atlanta spa shootings, it is crucial to continue to strive for gender equality in our culture and in our policies. Women have always fought for the betterment of society, and it’s about time that the rest of society starts fighting for women’s rights, too.