Until roughly 50 years ago, the very idea of women’s history was largely unknown, and certainly not celebrated. In fact, it wasn’t until 1975 that the United Nations began observing International Women’s Day. Add to that the fact that it hasn’t even been 100 years since the ratification of the 20th Amendment, which granted women’s suffrage, and it becomes clear that women’s rights are still fresh in our history.
National Women’s History Month was officially declared by Congress in 1987, according to the National Women’s History Project (NWHP), a coalition founded in Santa Rosa, CA in 1980 that successfully lobbied in favor of a month dedicated to honoring women’s history. However, the push for recognition for American women started much earlier than the 1980s.
The chosen month of March was actually born out of the labor and socialist movements of the early 20th century and the first Women’s Day was held in New York City on Feb. 28, 1909, according to time.com. This first rally marked the one-year anniversary of the garment worker’s strikes, when thousands of women marched for economic equality through Manhattan to Union Square Park. The concept of Women’s Day had gone international with the spread of socialism to Europe within a couple of years, according to time.com.
However, it wasn’t until the 1970s when feminist activists started to dispute K-12 school curriculum in Santa Rosa, CA. They refuted the history taught in schools that all but left out women’s contributions. Their answer to this was the creation of the Education Task Force of the Sonoma County (California) Commission on the Status of Women, who introduced “Women’s History Week” in 1978, per NWHP. The week of International Women’s Day was chosen for its commemoration.
Local celebrations in Santa Rosa included special programs hosted by dozens of schools, community women giving special presentations, and a “Real Woman” essay contest in which hundreds entered. The week’s grand finale was marked with a parade and presentation in downtown Santa Rosa, according to NWHP.
The idea would only gain momentum as Molly Murphy MacGregor traveled to Sarah Lawrence College in New York for a conference. MacGregor, one of the original Santa Rosa organizers, shared about the initial celebration while at that conference, which was hosted by the Women’s History Institute. The movement spread quickly across the states from there.
As the movement grew, supporters began to lobby Congress for the proclamation of a national week recognizing women’s history. Finally, in 1980, President Jimmy Carter announced the first national Women’s History Week for the week of March 2-8, 1980. Further similar announcements would be given by President Ronald Reagan, but by this point many regions’ observances had already begun to overflow into the other weeks of March. The NWHP soon lobbied Congress for a month-long celebration, which became official in 1987, establishing a national Women’s History Month.