“When I started working on women’s history about 30 years ago, the field did not exist. People didn’t think that women had a history worth knowing.” – Gerda Lerner, historian, 1986
How wrong they were. The National Women’s History Project was founded in California in 1980 by a group of women concerned that females were absent from historical texts. They were. They found that only about 3% of the content in history texts w devoted to women, leaving girls with few role models and leaving both genders with the assumption that women did nothing important. They did.
The Project then set out to change this perception, lobbying Congress to establish National Women’s History Week to coincide with International Women’s Day (March 8). Then, in 1987, the group led the successful campaign to declare March as National Women’s Month.
The Project’s one simple goal – to teach as many people as possible about women’s role in history – builds on the tradition of storytelling, akin to sitting on your grandmother’s knee as she tells stories of her youth or on your mother’s lap as she explains her immigration to give you a better life. Stories such as these impact us in ways that shape our lives.
Imagine you are the daughter of Lydia Taft as she describes the day she became the first woman to vote. Or you are the sister of Victoria Woodhull as she discusses her desire to run for president in 1871. Maybe you are one of the twelve sons and daughters influenced by your mother Lillian Moller Gilbreth, the first true industrial/organizational psychologist who pioneered applying scientific management to everyday tasks. Your family becomes the inspiration for the book Cheaper by the Dozen and you and your siblings go on to lead your own influential lives as authors, business people, teachers, engineers and contributors to community service.
The rich tapestry of these stories not only weaves the fabric of a family’s history but forever marks the profound impact womens’ efforts have on our world. If we reflect on one simple act such as refusing to give up a seat on the bus like Rosa Parks did in December 1955, we must first explore the female influence that shaped her youth. Rosa’s grandmother, a former slave, was a strong advocate for racial equality and Rosa cited in interviews that both her mother and grandmother were inspirational to her. Rosa speaks clearly about her mother and grandmothers histories and this knowledge gave her the strength and self-confidence to make a history of her own.
This year, the theme of National Women’s History Month is to honor women who have shaped America’s history and its future through public service and government leadership. What does that really mean? From championing basic human rights to ensuring access and equal opportunity for all Americans, it means they have led the way in establishing a stronger and more democratic country. A visit to the National Woman’s History Project website reveals a diverse list of 2016 Honorees like:
- Isabel Gonzalez – Champion of Puerto Ricans securing American citizenship
- Daisy Bates – Civil Rights Organizer
- Suzan Shown Harjo – Native American Public Policy Advocate and Journalist
- Karen Narasaki – Civil and Human Rights Leader for Asian American equality
- Nadine Smith – LGBT Civil Rights Activist
- Betty Mae ‘Pa-Tuth-Kee’ Tiger Jumper – first woman elected Chairperson of the Seminole Tribe and first female ‘Tribal Chief’ in North America
While this year’s nominees are incredibly impressive, the list of women who have – and still are – having a positive impact on our lives is long and rich. In the list that follows, we want to highlight a few more that deserve our attention, women who have shaped our lives and some who are just setting out to do so.
Aung Ang Suu Kyi – Prominent activist and political leader of Burma, Aung Ang Suu Kyi has spent her life advocating for human rights and freedom in Burma. She spent 15 years as a political prisoner of Burma’s military dictators, ultimately winning freedom and leading her party to victory in national elections. For her efforts, she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
Dolores Huerta – a recognized role model in the Latino community, Huerta is known for her work as a labor leader and civil rights activist, working tirelessly on behalf of farm workers and their families. Recognized around the world for her leadership, Ms. Huerta won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.
Coco Chanel – This phenomenally successful fashion designer was born into poverty and faced extreme adversity after her mother died and her father left her at an orphanage. Her elegant designs spurred women to gain freedom from the physically limiting uncomfortable corsets and heavy petticoats of the day. She built an empire based on timeless designs, like her legendary Chanel suit, the “little black dress” and her perfume, Chanel No. 5.
Anna Mary Robertson Moses – Known by her nickname ‘Grandma Moses,’ she was a renowned American folk artist who began a successful painting career at the age of 78. Moses was a prolific painter creating over 1500 paintings during her career. Her painting “Fourth of July” hangs in the White House and “Sugaring Off” sold for over one million dollars. Her works hang in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum, among others.
1996 USA Women’s Basketball Team – Team USA dominated the competition in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta by averaging 102 points per game for eight games and winning the gold medal. The team sold out crowds, garnered huge television ratings and proved that women’s basketball was a viable entity in the United States spurring the WNBA the following year.
Mo’ne Davis – This young lady can throw a fastball at 70 mph. As a 13 year old pitcher, she became the first girl to win a game in the Little League World Series. She was named the youngest AP Female Athlete of the year and played on the high school girls’ varsity basketball team while still in the eighth grade.
Ynes Mexia – Stuck in an unhappy marriage in Mexico, Ynes divorced at 51 and moved to San Francisco. After joining the Sierra Club she enrolled in botany classes and was soon accompanying professors and curators on collecting trips throughout North and South America. While she never completed a formal degree, Mexia went on to collect over 145,000 plant specimens, including 500 new species. Widely regarded as one of the most accomplished plant collectors of her generation, Mexia has numerous species named after her.
Bessie Coleman – Bessie Coleman overcame her era’s sexual and racial prejudice to become the first African-American female pilot in history and the first African-American pilot of either gender to earn an international pilot’s license. Denied access to flying in the United States, she found a sponsor, learned French and travelled to France to get her pilot’s license and training. She returned to become a well-known “barnstormer” and stunt pilot. She is widely recognized as opening the door to professional aviation for people of color – men and women alike.
Eva Peron – (aka Evita), The First Lady of Argentina founded a charitable organization to build homes for the poor and homeless and provided free health care for its citizens. She also ran the Ministries of Labor and Health, championed women’s suffrage in Argentina, and founded and ran Argentina’s first large-scale female political party, the Female Peronist Party.
Golda Meir – the Ukrainian born, Wisconsin raised Golda Meir, was the fourth woman in the world – and the only woman in Israel – to serve as an elected head of state. Known as the first, “iron lady” Ms. Meir helped guide Israel through its formation and early years as a nation state. She was actually retired, when called back to lead Israel through the tumultuous period of the Six Day War, the Munich Olympics and the Yom Kippur war. She retired in 1974.
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell – In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to graduate from an American medical school. When no hospital would accept her for residency, due to her gender, Dr. Blackwell created her own practice and purchased a house in which to locate it. She tended to the health of women and children throughout her career, and helped forward the medical careers of many other women, eventually opening her own medical school in England.
Margaret Mead – As a cultural anthropologist, Mead studied a wide range of issues such as women’s rights, child rearing, sexual morality, nuclear proliferation, race relations, drug abuse, population control, environmental pollution and world hunger. She is also the author of 23 books, including the famous and controversial “Coming of Age in Samoa.”
Malala Yousafzai – Young and brave, this Pakistani student is an advocate for women’s education in a region controlled by the Taliban and now worldwide. Yousafzai was shot while traveling home from school, survived and is the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
Joan of Arc – This legendary female warrior and Roman Catholic saint played a key role in commanding France’s army. Her strength was strategy rather than slaying and her strategies are said to have influenced French battle models.
Harriet Beecher Stowe – This author of over 30 novels penned Uncle Tom’s Cabin which played a significant role in accelerating the movement to abolish slavery.
Anne Frank – One of the most discussed and well known Jewish victims of the Holocaust due to her very well written diary giving a firsthand account of growing up in hiding from the Germans. Her diary is credited with raising widespread awareness of the Holocaust still to this day.