How Did Women's History Month Start? These Unsung Female Activists Were Instrumental
March is National Women's History Month, in which everybody from the Library of Congress to your local bookstore celebrates American women and their contribution to national history. However, the origins of Women's History Month are often misrepresented. President Jimmy Carter is often given a lot of credit for signing Women's History Week, Women's History Month's precursor, into law in 1980, according to TIME. In reality, it's thanks to the tireless work of many named and anonymous female activists that we celebrate women's contributions to history in culture during this month.
March has been associated with women's rights for over a century, in large part because of the labor movement. Female garment workers in America staged a massive protest on Mar. 8, 1857, protesting their poor working conditions and low pay, according to the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. Garment work was dangerous and often involved child labor, and the 1857 marches are widely credited with kick-starting America's labor movement. The organizations behind the strikes, which were repeated on Mar. 8 in 1908 by New York needleworkers and throughout the year, were often dominated by women, including Clara Lemlich, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Lucy Parsons and Mary Harris Jones (AKA Mother Jones), who coordinated protests, gave powerful speeches and travelled the country organizing female workers. Their work is enshrined in the fact that Mar. 8 is now International Women's Day.
Based on that foundation, women in the 20th century decided that March was the opportune month to celebrate women's history in America. And much of the drive behind what we now know as National Women's History Month came from a Sonoma, California activist and history teacher named Molly Murphy MacGregor. In 1978, she and fellow members of the Education Task Force of the Sonoma County (California) Commission on the Status of Women instituted a local "women's history week" in which schools and organizations celebrated women's achievements in specially created curriculums. There was even a parade. “We joked amongst ourselves: first the county, then the state, then the nation, then the world,” MacGregor said in an interview with Press Democrat.
The push to have women's contributions to American history more formally recognized expanded from there — with other notable women helping it along. In 1980 MacGregor co-founded the National Women's History Project with fellow activists Mary Ruthsdotter, Maria Cuevas, Paula Hammett and Bette Morgan, which began a more formal push to take an official period recognizing women's history national. In 1979 Macgregor teamed up with academic historian Gerda Lerner at Sarah Lawrence College to produce a 17-day conference on women's history and its influence, which brought the effort huge publicity; Ms Magazine, then the foundation of America's feminist press, wrote about the effort, and it attracted a flush of attention.
But MacGregor, Ruthsdotter, and other activists weren't done. The group enlisted the help of Democratic Representative Barbara Mikluski, who'd later be a Senator. In 1980, President Carter declared the week of 2-8 March "Women's History Week", and Mikluski and another Senator, Orrin Hatch, sponsored a bill to support the idea of the week repeating in 1981, according to the website for the National Women's History Project. It was still only a year-to-year project, and the National Women's History Project thought they could do better.
MacGregor and the rest of the organization worked hard at state level, and by 1986, fourteen different states across the U.S. celebrated the entire month of March as Women's History Month. It spawned new college history lessons, public school curriculums, and entirely new resources aimed at teaching the community about what women had done for America. At that point, state governments themselves started to lobby heavily for it to be a national event, and in 1987 they finally succeeded.
Technically, National Women's History Month is only 31 years old this year, but women have been working to enshrine March as a special time for women's history and recognition for over 100 years. From labor protest organizers and the anonymous thousands of needle workers in the 19th century to history teachers and activists in the 20th, National Women's History Month has been a labor of love for countless women.