Does Women's History Month Really Matter?

by Caitlin Flynn
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Every March, we celebrate Women's History Month — but this year, the event has received more attention than usual. Every time I opened my social media feeds over the past few weeks, there was a slew of inspiring quotes, photos, and tributes — far more than during any previous Women's History Month. That's not terribly surprising; following the 2016 election and the historic Women's Marches, conversations about sexism and women's rights have been front and center in the media, as well as in many of our personal and professional lives. Although I've always viewed myself as someone who "lives every month like it's Women's History Month," I also always look forward to March — mainly because there are an increased number of educational events to attend, and I welcome any occasion that casts a spotlight on people and issues that don't receive nearly enough attention.

Throughout this month's celebrations, however, I heard some people raise a valid question: does Women's History Month serve a real purpose? Or is it society's way of throwing us a bone and creating an excuse to ignore women's history for the other 11 months of the year?

My knee-jerk reaction upon hearing this was to say, “Yes, of course it has value and it should exist until we achieve gender equality." But, if there’s one thing the past few months have definitively shown us all, it’s that the conversation around feminism truly needs to be an open dialogue — and respectful disagreement can be a positive thing that brings about much-needed change. After all, the controversy surrounding the Women’s March led to a far more inclusive, progressive platform. So it stands to reason that examining arguments for and against Women's History Month could serve the same purpose.

I'm certainly not an expert, but luckily, I was able to speak to two people who are. As Women's History Month draws to a close today, their thoughts might help us clarify and reflect upon exactly what Women's History Month accomplishes — and how it can accomplish more.

Laura Harrison, Chair of the Gender & Women's Studies department at Minnesota State University — Mankato, tells Bustle that Women's History Month serves as an important reminder of both the progress women have made, and the historical continuities of gender-based oppression that still plague America:

"Women's History Month is particularly relevant in 2017, as demonstrated by images circulating in the media of a room full of (largely white) male politicians deliberating on the significance of continued health coverage for prenatal and maternity care. The history of U.S. women's contributions to activism, art, science, politics and more also makes clear that 'women' is an expansive and flexible term that encompasses many intersecting identities of race, class, sexuality, ability, and embodiment."
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Suzanne Bost, Graduate Program Director of Women's Studies and Gender Studies at Loyola University in Chicago agrees that Women's History Month still serves an important purpose. "I am glad to have dozens of events that center on women to attend this month, and I worry that without designated spaces for studying women, we would still be telling the same old stories about history," she tells Bustle. However, Bost shares the concerns that others have expressed:

"I do think that the existence of Women's History Month makes women's history seem marginal, extractable from history in general, and the idea of 'women's history' revolves around binary gender divisions that we are increasingly finding to be problematic."

At long last, more and more people are realizing how important it is that feminism be intersectional. But there is still so much progress that needs to be made in a wide variety of feminist institutions, including within Women's History Month itself. It's crucial that women's history events, articles, and dialogue place an emphasis on intersectional feminism, and its impact on women's history and our future.

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I certainly agree that some people out there do have the mindset that women should celebrate "their month" and then stop talking. But, as Harrison and Bost's points emphasize, I believe that the positives outweigh the negatives, and that Women's History Month does serve an important purpose.

Although I didn't change my mind about Women's History Month, I'm grateful that the question was raised because it lead me to do some self-reflecting and soul-searching. One of the reasons I love and appreciate Women’s History Month is because, despite being an activist who considers herself well-informed, there is still so much I don't know — and when I scroll through my favorite news sites or my social media feeds in March, I see so many articles highlighting important women in history who haven't received the recognition or acclaim they deserve. These same people are political all year round and we constantly learn from each other, but there are simply more articles and resources published in March.

But I've realized that I need to actively seek out new knowledge and information all year — not just when there's a flurry of attention. As a feminist, there are specific causes that are closest to my heart for personal reasons, and I'm admittedly more likely to read up on them than make a concerted effort to research topics that aren't my area of expertise. By reflecting on why Women's History Month is important to me, I've realized that I need to work harder every single month to seek out new knowledge in order to be a more well-rounded feminist.

Check out the “Feminism” stream in the Bustle App throughout the month of March for more inspiring ways to celebrate Women's History Month.