A History of Women's History Month
In our ongoing local history series, Sense of Place, we explore the past to discover why things are the way they are in our community today. To celebrate Women’s History Month, we’ll air several stories that highlight women’s history in the Ozarks, starting with this one. For this first installment, KSMU’s Emma Wilson looks into the history of the month itself.
If you didn’t know already, March is Women’s History Month. It’s a month to take a closer look at the women whose contributions made our lives, as we know them, possible. It may seem strange to have a month set aside to focus on the history of half the population. But until relatively recently, the stories of women were largely ignored in the telling of traditional history in textbooks and academia. This was the reason for the creation of Women’s History Week in Sonoma County, California in 1978. Dr. Holly Baggett, associate professor of history at Missouri State University, says that the idea spread rapidly from there.
“And it just sort of mushroomed as a grassroots movement as Women’s History Week until 1980, [when] President Carter signed a proclamation making it ‘National Women’s History Week.’ And then, seven years later, President Reagan signed a proclamation calling it ‘National Women’s History Month.’”
Leading up to the creation of a nationally recognized celebration of women’s history, there was a boom in the fields of non-traditional history, Baggett says.
“It came under this umbrella of what we call ‘Social History,’ the history of everyday people. At the very same time, what was happening in the ‘60s and the ‘70s is that people started looking at writing history from the bottom up, rather than from the top down.”
She says that as working class people, women, and people of color gained greater access to the world of American academia, the ‘bottom-up’ approach became popular…that’s because folks finally had the opportunity to tell their own history. The field of women’s history, along with the study of other previously ignored histories, exploded. This had a profound effect on the study of history in universities. Baggett teaches an upper-division women’s history course at MSU. She says that, unfortunately, this approach to history has not been nearly as prolific in public education or general history awareness.
“The market for the textbook in the Springfield school system comes from Texas, which has a tendency to be much more traditional history—presidents, generals, etc.—and when women are included it’s in a sidebar. So it really falls on the teachers themselves to fill in the gaps.”
Baggett says that this is one of many reasons Women’s History Month continues to be useful in the teaching of history.
“If you had asked me in the ‘80s when I was working on my doctorate in women’s history, ‘Look forward to the year 2012: do you think we’re going to need a Women’s History Month then?’ My answer would have been, ‘I don’t think so, because I think by then, I think by the 21stcentury, it will be incorporated and mainstreamed enough that we don’t need a special month to stop and say “Hey, let’s take a look at women’s contributions in the past.”’ And I would have been wrong.”
“This year’s theme for Women’s History Month is Women’s Empowerment, Women’s Education.”
That’s Dr. Stephanie Norander, an assistant professor in the Communications Department at Missouri State; she also chairs the Gender Studies committee that schedules Women’s History Month events on campus. She says that the theme directly reflects what they’d like to accomplish by holding various events for Women’s History Month.
“It’s a time to both look back and celebrate and honor those women whose contributions maybe have not been central to the telling to our history as a society, and then also to look at where we need to take strides in integrating women fully into the fabric of our society.”
She says that since women still only comprise 17 percent of the United States Congress and continue to be not represented or gravely misrepresented in the media shows the need for a month that puts women’s stories front and center.
Both Norander and Baggett agree that women’s history is women’s empowerment. Again, Dr. Holly Baggett.
“One of the many good things about women’s history is learning that it’s not a complete history of total subjection, oppression, and victimization. It’s a history of strong people who overcame obstacles, who did important things that were then later ignored. And I think that we can, and should, look to the past for role models.”
If you are interested in attending the Women’s History Month activities on the Missouri State University campus and elsewhere, you can visit our website, www.KSMU.org. Just click on Community Calendar. Again, Dr. Stephanie Norander.
“Bring your male friends and family members as well. Women’s History Month is about empowering and educating all of us, not just women.”
For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Emma Wilson.
Stories profiling individual women from the Ozarks will air throughout this month. To find those, as well as other stories about the history of this region, go to our website, ww.KSMU.org, and visit the Sense of Place page.