Women’s History Month is a time to celebrate and honor the accomplishments of women throughout time and across the globe while also highlighting the need for further equality.
And while the Women’s History Month we know today lasts the full month of March, the celebration began in 1978 with a one-week celebration in New York that corresponded with International Women's Day, March 8.
The movement spread across the nation; in 1980, a consortium of women’s groups and historians led by the National Women’s History Project—now known as the National Women’s History Alliance—lobbied for national recognition of the celebration. They succeeded, and on Feb. 28, 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the first Presidential Proclamation declaring the week of March 8 as Women’s History Week. Congress passed a resolution in 1987 declaring the entire month of March as Women’s History Month, a resolution that continues to pass annually.
Women's History Month may have officially started in the U.S., but the fight for women's rights is intersectional and international. The achievements of women of all races, classes, sexual orientations and statuses have contributed to the overall steps toward gender equality across the world. Along with Women’s History Month, International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, political and cultural achievements of women across the world. Each year, various groups come together to raise awareness and rally for equality, fundraise for women-focused charities, and acknowledge the impact of women all around. This year’s theme is #BreakTheBias, which is dedicated to eliminating bias against women and fostering equality.
Women’s History Month is now celebrated in countries such as Australia, Hungary, Ukraine, Canada, and Russia. The fight for women’s rights and the achievements of women of all races, classes, orientations and backgrounds contribute to the liberation and recognition everywhere.
Heroes in History
Just as the need for women's rights goes back centuries, the fight for liberation does, too. Today's feminist movements and ideas are informed by those that came before them—such as the first women's rights convention in the U.S., hosted by abolitionists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. The two friends had previously met at London's World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840; while they were allowed to attend with their husbands, they were not allowed to speak out or otherwise participate. In July of 1848, Stanton and Mott gathered several hundred people at Seneca Falls, New York for the Seneca Falls Convention. Demanding civil, social, religious and political rights for women, they read from the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, a feminst document based off the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal."
Across the globe, New Zealand became the first self-governing nation to allow women to vote, in 1873, following a wave of activism that included three petitions to the government in support of women's suffrage. The third petition led to the Electoral Act 1893, giving women the right to vote in the 1893 general election. The petition was 270 meters long and gathered approximately 32,000 signatures.
In 1893, Colorado became the first U.S. state to allow women the right to vote.
The 19th Amendment was passed in 1920. However, it’s important to remember that while the right to vote could no longer legally be denied on the basis of gender, it was often denied for Black women. The 15th Amendment allowed Black men to legally vote, but women as a whole were not permitted until after the 19th Amendment. But even then, Black women were kept from the polls in many states through tactics such as poll taxes and literacy tests. Asian Americans were also excluded from voting due to being deemed ineligible for naturalized citizenship. They didn’t get to vote until 1943. Native Americans faced a similar plight, and were not considered U.S. citizens until 1924.
Mary Church Terrell was a prominent suffragist in the fight for Black women’s rights. She co-founded the National Association of Colored Women in 1896, through which she addressed issues of women’s enfranchisement as well as equal education and pay for Black Americans. She was one of the first Black women to obtain a college degree, earning a bachelor’s and master’s from Oberlin College, and was the first Black woman appointed to the Board of Education in Washington, D.C.
Another important person in the fight for women’s suffrage—specifically Indigenous women—was Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (Zitkala-Sa) of the Yankton Sioux Nation. After being moved to a missionary boarding school that forced her to assimilate into white American culture as a child, she joined a teacher training program at Earlham College in Indiana as one of just a few Indigenous students. She studied violin at the New England Conservatory of Music and went on to teach at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Simmons Bonnin later began to write about her life experiences. She wrote a book, her essays were published in magazines such as Atlantic Monthly, and she wrote the first published opera by a person Indigenous to North America. Her work in activist spaces such as the National Council of American Indians, which she founded, eventually helped pass the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924.
In 1946, a year after the United Nations was born, the Commission on the Status of Women became the first global intergovernmental body dedicated to gender equality.
In Liberia, a civil war compelled thousands of Liberian women, led by activist Leymah Gbowee, to organize a movement for women's peace and dignity in 2003. Some of the most notable actions include a sex strike to pressure men to partake in peace talks, and a sit-in on peace negotiations by women who threatened to disrobe as a way to shame and prevent male delegates from leaving without a resolution. The movement was successful, and played a major role in ending the 14-year civil war. It also led to the election of Africa's first women head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Indiana University presented Sirleaf with an Honorary Degree in 2008.
A decade later, in 2013, and countries away in Pakistan, then-15-year-old activist and schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman as she was riding home on a bus after taking an exam. Two other girls, Kainat Riaz and Shazia Ramzan, were also wounded. Malala survived the shooting, and has since become one of the most well-known figures in the fight for girls' education. She co-founded the Malala Fund with her father Ziauddin, co-authored the book I Am Malala with Christina Lamb, and was a co-winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize alongside Kailash Satyarthi. At age 17, she was the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate. She continues to lead a full life and does activist work today. In 2020 she graduated from Oxford University; recently, she’s spoken out against Indian authorities forcing girls to remove their hijab at school, written essays about topics such as International Women’s Day and partnered with Apple TV+ for a programming partnership.
One of the single biggest women's rights events—The Women's March—happened Jan. 21, 2017. The event has been hailed as the largest single-day protest in U.S. history, and spurred similar movements worldwide. The Washington march drew nearly half a million people, and worldwide protests gathered over three million in countries including Paris, Buenos Aires, Krakow, and Nairobi.
The struggles that women face aren't solely in the past, and neither is their activism. Women continue to make history around the world every day. In Northern India, a movement that began in 2006 is still going strong today. When a woman named Sampat Pal Devi saw a man abusing his wife in a village in Banda district, she pleaded with him to stop—but was harmed by him as well. The news spread, and soon a group of women came forward to form a team called the Gulabi Gang. As a response to widespread domestic abuse in the area, the group keeps watch on community activities and protests against injustice and malpractice. Clad in pink saris, the group supports local activism efforts by other groups, distributes community service such as food and grain to villagers and pensions to widows, and teaches women self-defense and financial independence.
In Kuwait, women are organizing in protest of governmental systems they say are attempting to oppress them in an unraveling of traditional values among governmental dysfunction. Alanoud Alsharekh is a women's rights activist who founded Abolish 153, a group that aims to eliminate an article of the country's penal code that gives lax punishments for so-called "honor killings" of women. Clerics also recently ruled that women may only join the military in non-combat roles and if they wear an Islamic headscarf and obtain permission from a male guardian. All of this has launched a powerful feminist movement throughout the country, with women's rights activists and supporters protesting outside of places such as Kuwait's National Assembly on Feb. 7 of this year.
The need for women representation stretches into media, too - and it’s being fulfilled one leader at a time. Janet Mock is a Black transgender rights advocate, writer and producer who has helped pave the way for trans rights and increased crucial representation in media. After graduating from New York University, she worked as an editor at People Magazine for over five years. In 2011, she came out as transgender in a Marie Claire article. Since then, she has released two memoirs, hosted her own culture show titled ‘So POPular!,’ and has written articles for numerous publications. She is also a writer, director and producer for FX’s ‘Pose,’ a show hailed for its groundbreaking representation of trans people and issues and for casting trans actors to play trans characters. She is the first trans woman of color hired as a writer for a TV series in history, and also became the first openly trans woman of color to secure a deal with a major content company when she signed a deal with Netflix in 2019.
While the journey toward equity and equality is ongoing, there have been significant steps toward progress in even just the past five years. In 2021, Tanzania swore in its first woman president and approved paid bereavement leave for women and their partners who have a miscarriage or stillbirth. Honduras also swore in its first woman president earlier this year. And in the U.S., the #MeToo movement, which gained wide popularity in 2017, still makes an impact, with women speaking up against sexual assault and working to support survivors. Bloomington is home to organizations such as Shatter the Silence, which raises awareness about sexual violence and supports survivors.
Onward and Upward
Keeping the past and current events in mind, there are countless ways in which women and allies can join in the movement and educate themselves. Check out these organizations and opportunities focusing on women’s empowerment, in Bloomington and beyond:
- Muslim Women of IU
- Women in Media
- IU Center of Excellence for Women and Technology Student Alliance
- Girl Gains at IU
- Independent Council
- Women in Business
- Women in Government
- Women of Color Leadership Institute
- IUB Women Rising
- Shatter the Silence
- Monroe County NOW
- My Sister’s Closet
- Women Writing For (a) Change
Events/Educational Resources (as of Spring 2022)
- IU Bloomington is hosting an International Women’s Day Conference on March 26. The conference will be held at the Hamilton Lugar School atrium from noon to 6 P.M., and will explore the theme of “Women’s Wellbeing: Our Stories, Our Strength.”
- IU’s Office of the Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Multicultural Affairs offers a space on its website to learn about women who have made and are currently making a difference at IU.
- IU Libraries also has resources offering opportunities for research about current women’s issues and women’s history month events
- The IU School of Social Work is hosting a virtual event on Thursday, March. 10, 2022, titled “Honoring Women’s History Month: Social Work and Critical Feminism.” The event will take place from 6 PM to 7:30 PM. The purpose of the workshop is to honor and celebrate WHM through a panel discussion on social work and critical feminism, covering how social workers can advance equality with women and nonbinary people and incorporate feminist theory into their practices.