How a grassroots group of Sonoma County educators launched National Women’s History Month
By J.C. Thomas
For more than 40 years, March has been recognized in the United States as Women’s History Month. Throughout March, schools, cultural institutions and communities nationwide recognize and honor the achievements of women in history.
As recently as the 1970s, no such emphasis was placed on the role of even history’s most notable female figures. In fact, less than 3% of the contents of history texts in the K-12 curriculum covered the contributions of women. This left students with glaring gaps in knowledge, a skewed perception of history and few female role models. Discovery of that statistic, along with a clear overall absence of women from history lessons, spurred a small, grassroots group of educators and activists in Santa Rosa, California, into action.
In 1978, a Sonoma County Education Task Force organized its own local Women’s History Week to spread the message that women warrant representation in the K-12 curriculum. The group selected a week in March to coincide with International Women’s Day, which has been celebrated on March 8 since 1911. This first Women’s History Week included special presentations in classrooms, an essay contest, speakers and a parade in downtown Santa Rosa.
Molly Murphy MacGregor, a member of the Task Force and a history instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College, was invited in 1979 to participate in the Women’s History Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. She spoke about the success of Sonoma County’s Women’s History Week to an audience of leading historians and educators, who relayed the concept back to their own communities, organizations and school districts.
In 1980, MacGregor along with Mary Ruthsdotter, Maria Cuevas, Paula Hammett and Bette Morgan, formed the National Women’s History Project (NWHP). The project had a mission of “writing women back into history,” making sure the K-12 curriculum teaches students about women’s historical achievements. A consortium led by the NWHP successfully lobbied for national recognition of Women’s History Week. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter issued the first Presidential Proclamation establishing National Women’s History Week as the week of March 8.
“Too often, the women were unsung and sometimes their contributions went unnoticed. But the achievements, leadership, courage, strength, and love of the women who built America were as vital as that of the men whose names we know so well.”— President Carter in his Proclamation establishing March, 1980 to be National Women’s History Month
Bolstering NWHP’s mission, in 1981, Representative Barbara Mikulski and Senator Orrin Hatch co-sponsored a Congressional Resolution for National Women’s History Week. The group also continued in its work by lobbying Congress to recognize the whole month of March as National Women’s History Month. By 1986, 14 U.S. states recognized March as Women’s History Month, and in 1987, Congress declared it to be so in perpetuity. Every year since, the U.S President has issued a Presidential Proclamation declaring March to be National Women’s History Month.
The NWHP has now expanded, and in 2018 transitioned to become the National Women’s History Alliance (NWHA). The group works with women’s history organizations nationwide, and continues in its original mission to make sure women’s contributions to history are recognized, taught and celebrated. NWHA has the honor of selecting each year’s theme for Women’s History Month. For 2021, the theme is “Valiant Women of the Vote: Refusing to Be Silenced.” The alliance still has is headquarters in Santa Rosa, California – the place where it all started.
Interested in history? You might like to read “See a Gutenberg Bible – the Printed Book that Changed the World – at The Huntington Library“