A Brief History of Women’s History Month

Women’s History Month 2012: Women’s Education – Women’s Empowerment

March marks the start of Women’s History Month in the US, Australia and UK, and is a time for celebrating not only the historical achievements of women through the years, but also serves to empower future generations of women to leave their mark on society. Each year, the President of the United States issues a proclamation to honor the accomplishments of women and their role in shaping the course of history of the United States. (Click here for the proclamation for 2012) What many Americans do not know, however, is the history behind the month long celebration.

Women’s History Month can trace it roots back to the first International Women’s Day in 1911 held in Europe. It was first pioneered by German Socialist Clara Zetkin to demand equal rights for women with the question of equal suffrage taking center stage. Up until this point only 2 nations gave women the universal right to vote: Finland and New Zealand, with Australia giving rights to women who were not indigenous peoples. (Australia would not allow universal suffrage until 1962.) At the first International Conference of Working Women 1910 in Copenhagen, Denmark, Zetkin proposed the notion that the international community should have a designated day of the year for women to demand these rights. The attendees at the conference unanimously approved her idea, and thus the first International Women’s Day was born the following year on March 19th.  Initial demonstrations were held in Germanic speaking countries (Denmark, Austria, Germany) where meeting halls and public streets became gathering places for women to come together and show support for their common demands.

Over the next several decades, the women’s rights movement continued to experience highs and lows of success. High points, such as women finally gaining suffrage in the United States in 1920, transitioned into major lulls during the years of the Great Depression and early on in World War II when women’s rights were not deemed as pressing issues during the turbulent times. However, when the men went to war, the women took charge of the workforce back home. When the soldiers returned, they were surprised to find that the women were in many cases reluctant to give up their positions. The experience of working gave many women a feeling of empowerment; for the first time in their lives they were contributing to the greater good and had a purpose outside the home. It was not until the 1960’s however, when the Women’s Liberation movement really exploded and sparked the greater population’s interest in the contributions of women throughout history. For the first time the academic world developed curriculum and courses specifically on women’s history, which in turn produced more literature and sparked intelligent civic debate that would contribute to a thriving women’s movement.

The advances in promoting the contributions of women in society by academic institutions continued successfully for many years thereafter. In California’s Sonoma County, the Commission on the Status of Women began a “Women’s History Week” that would coincide with International Women’s Day, which by now had been moved to March 8th. Soon, many schools began adopting the idea and the Sonoma Country Commission soon had encouraged enough support to ask Congress to establish a “National Women’s History Week” which was passed in 1981. The concept only gained in popularity when six years later in 1987, Congress expanded the week to a month, and the current form which we celebrate today, thanks in large part to the National Women’s History Project (NWHP) which was the leading force in lobbying Congress for the approval.

Each year since the national designation of Women’s History Month, a new theme is established in order to draw closer attention to some of the issues that women have faced in the past and will continue to do so in the future. For 2012, the theme is “Women’s Education – Women’s Empowerment” which puts the spotlight on the importance of education and the resulting economic, political, and personal empowerment with which it goes hand in hand. (See below for a list of compiled themes over the past 25 years)

As the month of March progresses, we will continue to pay tribute to the generations of women whose commitments and messages have proved invaluable to society. Please check back for more posts on the blog with biographies of American women who have made an impact on American history.

Past Themes for Women’s History Month

2012: Women’s Education – Women’s Empowerment

2011: Our History is Our Strength

2010: Writing Women Back into History

2009: Women Taking the Lead to Save Our Planet

2008: Women’s Art – Women’s Vision

2007: Generations of Women Moving History Forward

2006: Women: Builders of Communities and Dreams

2005: Women Change America

2004: Women Inspiring Hope and Possibility

2003: Women Pioneering the Future

2002: Women Sustaining the American Spirit

2001: Celebrating Women of Courage and Vision

2000: An Extraordinary Century for Women – Now, Imagine the Future

1999: Women Putting Our Stamp on America

1998: Living the Legacy of Women’s Rights

1997: A Fine and Long Tradition of Community Leadership

1996: See History in a New Way

1995: Women’s History: Promises to Keep

1994: In Every Generation, Action Frees Our Dreams

1993: Discover a New World: Women’s History

1992; Women’s History: A Patchwork of Many Lives

1991: Nurturing Tradition, Fostering Change

1990: Courageous Voices Echoing in our Lives

1989: Heritage of Strength and Vision

1988: Reclaiming the Past, Rewriting the Future

1987: Generations of Courage, Compassion, and Conviction

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