The roots of today’s Women’s History Month run deep, the ideas and energy nurtured by the same energy that burst forth over a century ago with the first International Women’s Day, celebrated in 1911. Imagination, commitment and collaboration have created what is now a national traditional in this and other nations, observance of March as Women’s History Month.
In the late-20th Century, as the women’s movement advanced and women’s studies gained recognition, schools, academic institutions, women’s organizations and states created local Women’s Week initiatives to promote further study and awareness of women’s contributions. In 1981 Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Representative Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) co-sponsored the first Joint Congressional Resolution establishing Women’s History Week. By 1989 the observance expanded to a month. And, as happens with Congressional resolutions, the wheels of the bureaucracies began to turn; stories emerged as researchers dipped into the archives, libraries strengthened their collections, educators produced curriculum and support materials, events and activities engaged students, and whole communities in learning the stories of women’s contributions. In 2011 the Obama Administration released a report on fifty years of progress in honoring Women’s History.
Today, responsibility at the federal level rests with a number of agencies to continue the work of exploration and celebration. A host of federal agencies play a role: The Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and numerous other agencies, including the Department of Defense, have a contributing role in providing resources and sponsoring programs that focus on the contributions of women. Resources abound – and just reading about the resources is great fun.
A key player at the federal level is the National Women’s History Project highlighted here. A priority of he NWHP is to select a theme for the year – not to exclude but to highlight outstanding accomplishments within specific fields. Recent themes have been “Writing Women Back into History” (2010), “Our History Is Our Strength” (2011) and “Women’s Education-Women’s Empowerment” (2012). Based on the annual theme, states and local groups are encouraged to develop their own unique programming and approaches.
The 2013 theme for national Women’s History Month is “Women Inspiring Innovations through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.” (STEM). In preparation for Women’s History Month 2013 the NWHP identified an astounding list of women nominated for special commendation. From the nominees the selectors named a cohort of eighteen women chosen as “extraordinary visionaries and role models” in the STEM fields where, the selectors note, women are still noticeably underrepresented.” The list of eighteen women covers decades, geography, fields of interest and affiliation. Reading the accomplishments listed for each honoree expands one’s very comprehension of the depth and breadth of the paths they have chosen – and in which they have succeeded. Very briefly, the list of honorees includes:
- Hattie Elizabeth Alexander, 1901-1968 – Pediatrician and Microbiologist
- Marilyn Barrett, 1954- K-12 STEM Educator
- Patricia Era Bath, 1942 - Ophthalmologist and Inventor
- Elizabeth Blackwell, 1821-1910, Physician
- Katharine Buss Blodgett, 1898-1979, Physicist and Inventor
- Edith Clarke, 1883-1959, Electrical Engineer
- Rita R. Colwell, 1934- Molecular Microbial Ecologist and Scientific Administrator
- Diane Fossey, 1932-1985, Primatologist and Naturalist
- Susan A. Gerbi, 1944- Molelcular Cell Biologist
- Helen Greiner, 1957- Mechanical Engineer and Robotocist
- Grace Murray Hopper, 1906-1992, Computer Scientist
- Olga Frances Linares, 1936- Anthropologist and Archaeologist
- Julia Morgan, 1872-1957, Architect
- Louise Pearce, 1895-1959, Physician and Pathologist
- Jill Pipher, 1955- Mathematician
- Mary G. Ross, 1908-2008, Mechanical Engineer
- Susan Solomon, 1956- Atmospheric Chemist
- Flossie Wong Staal, 1946- Virologist and Molecular Biologist
The list of names and professions inspires the uninitiated to learn more. Brief bios of each of the honorees are published here.
The NWHP planners went on to identify the names, dates and affiliations of all of the 115 nominees. There are teachers and writers, a couple of astronauts, physicians, inventors, and women who were at the pinnacle of fields I could neither pronounced now explain. That full list is also included here.
Without a chart or a footnote we know that most of these women inherited a vision of the possibilities by learning from and working with their forbearers. We know, too, that younger women and girls have some mighty – if dainty – footsteps in which to follow. The list itself suffices to start even this unreconstructed liberal arts major to further explore, possibly understand, the nature and impact of their contributions.
More to follow on the contributions of one pioneer Minnesota woman who cut a wide swath in the pre-STEM world of engineering and architecture. More, too, on some of the ways in which Minnesotans are carrying on the tradition of Women’s History Month.