By Louise Bernikow
Wednesday, March 1, 2006
The history of women's history.
March is women's history month. What we now so blithely celebrate, praising individual females for accomplishment and movie stars for being movie stars, actually began in the midst of a revolution.
By 1876, the United States was patting itself on the back by holding a huge anniversary celebration of the country's birth. Believing that the promises of the Declaration of Independence were still unfulfilled for women, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Lucretia Mott and their sister activists went to Philadelphia to protest. Afterward, the first three began to set down their history. "Men have been faithful in noting every heroic act," they wrote, so their task was "to make for generations a record of the heroic deeds of the other half."
Collecting memories and documents from across the country, sifting through their own collections and arguing, they set to work. Ten years later, "The History of Woman Suffrage" appeared in three volumes, numbering over 1,000 pages. After Stanton died in 1902, journalist Ida Husted Harper joined and in the end the massive work became six volumes available for "generations."
The next important landmark also had political roots. American Mary Ritter Beard edited the New York suffrage journal The Woman Voter and was friendly with the British radical Emmeline Pankhurst. With Americans Jane Addams and Florence Kelley, Beard was involved with organizing to improve working women's conditions. In 1933, she published "America Through Women's Eyes," insisting that ours was not "a long tradition of martyrdom." This idea was developed further in her best-known work, "Woman as Force in History," published in 1946.
Feminists in the late 1960s and early 1970s built on and expanded the groundwork. Studying earlier activists became an important tool for writing women back into history and a weapon against what was defined as the "sexism" of the day. The "herstory" uncovered, shared and taught in the young field of Women's Studies incorporated and sometimes focused on African American women, Latina women, Native women, poor women, working women. Out of the efforts of such a group at Sonoma State College in California and then Sarah Lawrence College in New York came the first acknowledged Women's History Week in 1981 and now, Women's History Month.
The need to collect and record our history goes on. A group called Veteran Feminists of America is currently compiling a biographical guide to who was there and what they did in the Second Wave of the movement.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called "The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Veteran Feminists of America:
National Women's History Project:
Library of Congress: American Women: