The heritage of Women’s History Month lies in the mass militancy of female workers around the world, including New York City, and in the uprising called the "February Revolution" that toppled the Russian czar. From 1910 onwards, March 8 was celebrated around the world as International Women’s Day.
But neither mass nor militancy were characteristic of women in the United States between the end of World War II and the beginnings of the women’s liberation movement. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, rediscovering the "lost" or eradicated past, feminist activists began commemorating March 8 again, coupling protests and demonstrations with a resurrection of their heritage.
In Gainesville, Fla., in 1970, the group Redstockings demanded an end to oppression of women of color and 24-hour-a-day child care supported by the state and companies. In Boston in 1971, members of Bread and Roses took over a Harvard University building, demanding a child care center and converting that building into what is now the longest-standing women’s center in the country. In New York City that same year, a lavender-clad Victoria Woodhull Marching Band–named for the first woman to run for president–accompanied marchers to Union Square, where anarchist Emma Goldman once held forth with electrifying speeches advocating women’s freedom.
At the same time, feminists addressed the obliteration of women from what was being taught in schools from kindergarten to graduate school. The first women’s studies courses began across the country and the discipline of researching, writing and teaching "Women’s History" drew some of the most brilliant scholar-activists.
As the result of these efforts, International Women’s Day became "official," approved by Congress, first as a week and then as Women’s History Month. But the radical political edge faded. In some quarters, March is now a time for celebrating individual and contemporary women, especially movie stars and corporate tycoons. Like Mothers’ Day, "honoring" women sometimes sounds like reinventing the pedestal that an earlier generation declared an empty symbol. You can now buy an e-card to "celebrate this special month with your near and dear ones."
On the other hand, this year Redstockings plans to hold a speak-out outside the United Nations on March 8 and five different filmmakers are soliciting funds to complete works documenting the early days of the women’s liberation movement, including the Harvard building take-over, early California activism and visual artists. New celebrations continue to build on old traditions.
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 [email protected].
National Women’s History Project:
International Women’s Day: