By Lorraine Coons, Ph.D.
In February 1980, President Jimmy Carter issued a presidential proclamation declaring the week of March 8th as National Women's History Week. He paid tribute to women who led the struggle for equality including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone and Alice Paul and urged Congress to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, which states that “Equality of Rights under the Law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex." First proposed by feminist pioneers Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman in 1923, the ERA met with continued opposition by lawmakers and has yet to be ratified by Congress.
While refusing to incorporate the ERA into the Constitution, members of Congress did pass the first Joint Congressional Resolution proclaiming a Women’s History Week in 1981. The popularity of Women’s History Week created momentum to push Congress to designate the entire month of March as National Women’s History Month in 1987. Congress passed additional resolutions requesting and authorizing the president to proclaim March of each year as Women’s History Month. Annual proclamations have been issued ever since by U.S. presidents. The purpose of Women’s History Month is to honor, recognize and celebrate the achievements of American women and to appreciate the sacrifices of our foresisters in the struggle for equality.
In selecting March 8th as the commencement of a nationwide celebration of women in 1980, President Carter was paying tribute to International Women’s Day, which is observed in many countries around the world. International Women’s Day was born out of the activities of labor movements in the U.S. and Europe in the early 20th century. The United States took the lead in 1909 when the Socialist Party of America designated February 28 as the first National Woman's Day to honor the 1908 garment workers' strike in New York, where women protested abysmal working conditions.
The Socialist International, meeting in Copenhagen in 1910, built on the American model and established a Women’s Day, global in character, which championed the cause of universal women’s suffrage. International Women's Day was first celebrated on March 19, 1911, in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, where more than 1,000,000 women and men attended rallies. In addition to suffrage rights, demands were put forward for women's rights to employment, to vocational training and to an end to job discrimination.
During World War I, International Women's Day also became a vehicle for pacifists protesting what they viewed as an unjust war. Throughout Europe, women activists organized massive peace rallies on March 8. One example of their strength was when the women of Petrograd used this day to protest and strike for “Bread and Peace,” an action that ultimately brought down the Czar who abdicated four days later, precipitating the Russian Revolution. The Provisional Government, installed to fill the vacuum of leadership, granted women the right to vote.
In November, the History and Political Science Department will host its next Legacy Conference, the theme of which will be the Russian Revolution. One of the keynote speakers will be Dr. Wendy Goldman, who will address the Bolshevik seizure of power and its legacy for women.
The Charter of the United Nations, signed in 1945, was the first international agreement to affirm the principle of equality between women and men. Since its inception, the United Nations has promoted equal rights for women globally and through its many agencies has sought to address existing social, economic and political challenges to women’s advancement. During International Women's Year in 1975, the United Nations began celebrating International Women's Day on March 8. The 1995 Beijing Women’s Rights Conference focused on 12 critical areas of concern that limit women’s progress and development worldwide including denial of education, of the right to gainful employment and of political participation. In 2014, the 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women focused on the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls as the means of promoting the empowerment of women.
Chestnut Hill College was founded in 1924 as an institution whose goal was to educate and empower young women. We offer an interdisciplinary Women’s Studies minor that exposes students to the critical questions surrounding women’s rights issues from a variety of academic perspectives. It is particularly fitting that Chestnut Hill College honors the achievements of women in this national celebration during the month of March. We stand in solidarity with Malala Yousafzai in her call for the education of the world’s young women and her belief that “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.”
Lorraine Coons, Ph.D., is a Professor of History and Chair of the History and Political Science Department at Chestnut Hill College.