Editorial,  Women's History

Opinion: On Women’s History Month

On March 16, 1987, Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States, proclaimed March the first “Women’s History Month” to honor the women who “have helped shape our nation.” For years, history failed to reflect the voices of women, as men, specifically white men, dominated the annals of our past. In a 2012 article for the Journal of American History, historians Cornelia H. Dayton and Lisa Levenstein highlighted the rise of women’s history which emerged from the feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. They note that a primary reason for women’s studies is to rewrite “mainstream narratives of U.S. history” to include marginalized voices and to provide an expanded perspective of the role of gender in areas, such as “race, government policy, and the economy.” Today, the National Women’s History Museum and the Smithsonian’s American Women’s History Museum bring that work to the public.

Growing up in the rural South, I was unfamiliar with Women’s History Month until relatively recently. In the conservative religious environment in which I was raised, women held little importance beyond servitude and motherhood. It was rare to find a woman moving outside her domestic sphere of influence and even more rare to find a successful woman in a leadership position. Strong, empowered women simply didn’t exist in my world. I had no role models to demonstrate the true strength of being a woman. I was only shown how to be small and silent, to submissively accept whatever came to me, to look pretty at all times but not so much as to tempt men, to completely deny myself, my dreams, my goals, and my hopes in a blind obeyance of customs and traditions which robbed me of my right to choose my own path in life.

My study of impactful women in history finally gave me a glimpse into the kind of life for which I had always hoped. These women were powerful figureheads in both their private domestic lives and their public accomplishments. The women in my personal world have all passed on to me incredible gifts, my grandmothers’ grit and empathy, my mother’s love of books, but none achieved the sort of life I envisioned for myself. I don’t criticize the lives they chose, but I resent that they believed I would follow the blueprint of their lives without question. The truth is, I tried their style of life on for size, and it just didn’t fit.

As I journey forward in the footsteps of powerful women, I am learning that it can often be a lonely road. In 2020, as the world began shutting down due to the COVID pandemic, I was forced to take a microscopic look at my life, and I hated what I saw. I knew that whatever lay on the other side of that historic period, I had to make it better for myself. I decided to go back to school to pursue my MA in history. Last year, I became the first person in my family to attain an advanced degree. However, at no point during that process did my father even once acknowledge my pursuits or my accomplishments. Over the holidays, the only comment he made was to point out how historians were “changing” history, that it could no longer be told the way it was “supposed” to be told. I would have become upset and defensive if I hadn’t already known that he held such views. In his mind, I am moving outside my sphere, and it’s simply unacceptable. For her part, my mother has tried to be supportive at times, but she’s prone to subtly recommending that I really should be someone’s secretary or that I should be cleaning someone’s house.

Blazing your own trail can be brutal, but often we women have no other choice. Here’s to all the strong, empowered women (in whichever sphere you move) who are carving out a place for themselves in the history of our nation and beyond. Happy Women’s History Month!

*Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress/GPA Photo Archive via Flickr