Women’s History Month is typically lauded as an opportunity to celebrate women’s achievements throughout history. But whose history are we championing, exactly? As a young brown girl growing up in the Heartland, the women’s history I was taught in the classroom was limited and markedly one-sided.
I was taught about the First Ladies — most notably Martha Washington, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Jackie Kennedy. Of course, these women’s lives were taught through the lens of their roles as wives and tastemakers; I didn’t learn about Washington’s ownership of slaves, Roosevelt’s possible queerness, or Kennedy’s multilingualism and other intellectual achievements.
Suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are forever enshrined in American history as leaders of first-wave feminism, making them the focus of many Women’s History Month lessons. But they were also women of glaring contradiction. Although they were abolitionists, Anthony and Cady Stanton prioritized women’s suffrage over universal suffrage, and when the 15th amendment granted black men the right to vote after the Civil War, it simultaneously fractured the women’s suffrage movement. In 1869, Anthony and Cady Stanton formed the National Woman Suffrage Association, which opposed the 15th amendment — a fact that was conveniently omitted from my education in women’s history.
Women’s history was even bleaker when we entered the 20th century — I vaguely remember hearing about Gloria Steinem and the National Organization for Women somewhere between Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Watergate scandal, but not much else. A few names with scant context.
Moreover, all of these women we learned about were, well, white. They didn’t look like me or my mother. They didn’t have accented surnames or dark complexions. They didn’t speak to the unique type of womanhood that would be bestowed upon me because of my appearance. They were women, but they didn’t represent my history.
Why does this matter? Because the whitewashing of history is a continual and ongoing threat. In just the past month, Ben Carson — the neurosurgeon-turned-politician who now heads the Department of Housing and Urban Development — referred to slaves as “immigrants” and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos praised historically black colleges and universities as “pioneers of school choice.” Echoing Carson’s confusion, textbook publisher McGraw-Hill came under fire in 2015 for publishing a caption that called slaves “workers from Africa” who were brought to the States to “work on agricultural plantations.” And let’s not forget Arizona’s state-sanctioned attempt to ban the Mexican American studies class taught in the Tucson Unified School District — a class which attracted mostly Latino students who were likely hungry for a taste of their own history, just as I had been when I was a young Latina in high school.
Revisionism and erasure grossly endanger the preservation of America’s storied and complex ethnic history. And as a doubly marginalized community, women of color have it twice as hard when it comes to unearthing historical figures whose lived experiences reflect our own.
I spoke to eight women of color about their education in women’s history and how those lessons — or lack thereof — have shaped their perception of Women’s History Month and, more broadly, of themselves.
Ku'ualoha Ho'omanawanui, 50
"As a young woman, it was very frustrating to see so little attention given to women overall and to women of color in particular. The only women I can remember learning about in school were Harriet Tubman and Queen Lili’uokalani — we must have learned about white women, but I'm sure I blocked it out.
No one else can tell our story better than us, nor should they. And WOC certainly shouldn’t be okay with letting anyone else — men or other women who represent other cultures — telling our stories. We have our own intelligence, creativity, vision, and voice, and we should feel empowered to jump in how and where we see fit. We don’t need to ask anyone for permission."
Tokeya C. Graham, 43
"My K–12 education about women and their contributions to U.S. history was minimal at best. The thing that saved me was my library card. As a voracious and precocious reader, I devoured books about women, primarily women of color [and], specifically, black women. My earlier education was insufficient and, in many ways, it was dangerous. I was not privileged enough to see myself represented in the stories of the country I live in and in some ways, this made it difficult to imagine myself in this same country’s future.
I know for certain that WOC are positioned at the bottom of all movements and celebrations. Women’s History Month is built on identifying and celebrating ‘respectable’ womanhood, which is code for ‘white.’ WOC are often marginalized and treated as second-class citizens, even within a discussion about women’s history."
Salaam Green, 40
"I went to a school in rural Alabama. I don’t recall learning much about women’s history — the topic wasn’t discussed, and the textbooks were very limited at the time. My education in women’s history has come from my own personal readings of Angela Davis, Anne Hutchinson, and poets such as Maya Angelou and Audre Lorde. My role models growing up with a single mom were all women and included my grandmother, my mother who worked as a teacher, and her teacher friends.
The relevancy of Women’s History Month is dependent on the level of engagement of women. However, I do believe this month is non-inclusive of a variety of women and women-identifying people. The act of enacting human rights must also be included in the fight for gender rights across the board."
Crystal Lewis Brown, 37
"I don’t recall women’s history being a huge part of my education. What I do remember is us discussing the ‘usual’ women in history — most of them white — with a few big names like Rosa Parks always being a part of the conversation.
Just Google Women’s History Month and see what search results you get. I’d love to see us dig into these women who we don’t often see honored. [Take] the women from Hidden Figures — prior to the book and the movie, how many of us had ever discussed these women during Women’s History Month? Where are the Asian American women? There are so many women who have done — or are doing — so many great things that it’s hard for me to understand why we are still only scratching the surface in sharing their stories."
Addie Tsai, 37
"Throughout school, I rarely learned of the stories and struggles of women of color. Although there has been a lot of movement toward addressing black female narratives as of late, other women of color, such as Asian American women and Native American women — especially outside of the entertainment industry — still remain largely erased from the larger conversation around women’s history.
I have mixed feelings about Women’s History Month. On the one hand, it does offer a space to celebrate women’s contributions to America and [the world] throughout history. However, it also feels as though it ghettoizes women in a certain way, making their histories and triumphs a kind of token visibility."
Smriti Mundhra, 36
"I honestly don’t remember being taught much women’s history in school and nothing about women of color. Most of it I learned at home from my parents. My education in school was far from sufficient.
Women’s History Month [is] an opportunity to stop and recognize how amazing and powerful women are. It's extremely relevant to me because I feel like the work of fully appreciating a woman's abilities and accomplishments — and identity outside of mother/daughter/wife/sister — is never done. Now that I have a daughter [who’s] two, it's especially important for me to make sure that she is surrounded by role models in her own life and in the world at large. This became 1,000 times more important to me on November 8."
Sarah Tenorio, 28
"What I do remember was learning about our presidents’ wives and how admired they were. I never felt like my education in women’s history actually happened. It wasn’t until I took an African American women’s history class in college that I realized how little I knew. On the first day, our professor had us write a list of all the famous black women we’d learned about. They couldn’t be movie stars, athletes, or music artists. No one could write a list with more than five names. It was sad and embarrassing.
I once heard a white male teacher in my English department ask, ‘How am I supposed to teach Chicana authors? I don’t know of any Chicana authors.’ No. Women of color are not effectively represented in Women’s History Month because not enough people in our society make an effort to relearn history beyond the lens of the white patriarchs who have dictated our American history and literature for so long."
Ludmila Leiva, 26
"I grew up in a predominately white community in the Pacific Northwest. I remember the history we were taught being fairly whitewashed and homogenous, though it’s mostly in hindsight that I’m able to identify that. Concepts of diversity and intersectionality really aren’t things that I was introduced to until college. Because these are crucial tenets to a real understanding of women’s history and women’s rights in the present day, I don’t think that my learning experience was sufficient, and I wish that I had been made to understand these themes earlier on.
There has been a lot of progress in recent years, but white feminism is still a problem, and it still excludes people to a point that it becomes counterproductive. If we’re only fighting for reproductive rights and other hot-button issues and not taking the time to consider the myriad issues that specifically affect minority women — trans women, black women, immigrant women, or otherwise marginalized women — then what kind of feminism is that?"
Check out the “Feminism” stream in the Bustle App throughout the month of March for more inspiring ways to celebrate Women's History Month.