Constitution Daily

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Gender politics and the start of Women's History Month

March 1, 2012 by Abigail Perkiss


This March, visitors to the National Constitution Center can celebrate Women’s History Month with special events that pay tribute to the achievements, leadership, courage, and strength of countless women throughout American history who challenged the status quo. Visit our website for more information.

Suffragists General Rosalie Jones, Jessie Stubbs, and Colonel Ida Craft. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

In February 1980, President Jimmy Carter declared the week of March 8 to be National Women’s History Week. By Presidential Proclamation, Carter called on Americans to commemorate the unsung contributions of American women of years past. Carter said, “I urge libraries, schools, and community organizations to focus their observances on the leaders who struggled for equality–Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Lucy Stone, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Tubman, and Alice Paul. Understanding the true history of our country will help us to comprehend the need for full equality under the law for all our people.”

Seven years later, following widespread grassroots organizing and a national lobbying effort, Congress announced that March would forever be celebrated as Women’s History Month.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the start of the very first National Women’s History Month. The theme for this year’s celebration? Women’s education–women’s empowerment.

Over the past month, issues of women’s health and autonomy have been splashed across the front page of every major news publication in the United States. Women (and men) around the country expressed outrage as the Virginia legislature debated a bill requiring women to undergo an invasive ultrasound before receiving an abortion. The bill was ultimately approved the state Senate, minus the intrusive “transvaginal ultrasound”; the new version requires doctors to perform an external ultrasound and to simply offer to perform the more invasive procedure. Seven other states require giving women an ultrasound before an abortion. (See our other post today about the constitutionality of such procedures.)

Just yesterday, Rush Limbaugh made headlines when he condemned Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke, who testified before a Democratic Congressional Hearing about the Obama administration’s contraception policy. Said Limbaugh, “What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says she must be paid to have sex–what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute.”

It’s been a big month for gender politics. But of course, the politicization of issues of women’s equality and autonomy is nothing new.

In the mid-1960s, when segregationist Democratic Congressman Howard Smith suggested that sex be added to the language of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, many suspected that he did so out of the belief that Democrats would never vote for a bill to protect equality of the sexes. As Alabama Congressman Carl Elliott would later declare, “Smith didn’t give a damn about women’s rights, black rights, equality. He was trying to knock off votes either then or down the line because there was always a hard core of men who didn’t favor women’s rights.”

And in 1872, addressing the refusal of American politicians to support women’s suffrage, Susan B. Anthony proclaimed, “No self-respecting woman should wish or work for the success of a party that ignores her sex.”

Women’s History Month offers us the opportunity to draw lessons from the past. It allows us to reflect back on and honor the hard work of those that have come before, and then to make the critical connections to the world today.

As Thomas Jefferson once wrote of the role of education in creating active citizens, “history, by appraising them of the past, will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views.”

Let’s use this month to pause and reflect on the long fight for women’s equality and autonomy in the United States–and to think about how we might draw lessons from these efforts as we move forward.

Abigail Perkiss is an assistant professor of history at Kean University in Union, New Jersey and a fellow at the Kean University Center for History, Politics and Policy.

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