Why Women’s History?
Once the remaining two weeks of women’s history month come and go, and spring melts into summer, will our interest and value of our nation’s historic women melt away as well? Or will we continue our efforts to preserve and integrate them and their experiences, into the larger narrative of our American story?
After all, it wasn’t that long ago that the field of women’s history itself was scoffed at as insignificant. In fact, it was only about three decades ago that women’s history began to solidify as an academic field and, since its foundation, the field has reshaped and redefined standard US history in many ways.
The National Constitution Center has developed resources for educators that wish to incorporate the study of women into the narrative of American history such as a map of the states granting the women the right to vote prior to and after the passage of the 19th Amendment, an on-line game testing students’ knowledge of the history of voting rights, and a podcast of Gail Collins discussing the sweeping changes in the social, cultural, political, and, economic lives of women from the 1960s to the present.
Women’s history came to flourish in the 1970s and was born out of the social movements of the 1960s. US history for much of its existence ignored and diminished the importance of women’s lives, work and experiences. The brand of history that long was taught focused almost exclusively on white men, usually those in politics and the military; and women historians, as well as women’s history, were relegated to the footnotes of our national story.
One of the true heroines of this month is historian Gerda Lerner, who shaped women’s history through both publications and activism for over forty years. When President Jimmy Carter gave his proclamation of the first National Women’s History Week in 1980, he quoted Lerner’s reflection on the field saying, “women’s history is women’s rights—an essential, indispensable heritage from which we can draw pride, comfort, courage, and long range vision.”
Lerner is credited with teaching the first post-World War II college course in women’s history and she founded the very first graduate program in women’s history in 1972 at Sarah Lawrence College (just 40 years ago). Her groundbreaking efforts and theories in the field of American history have helped to advance the study of history in the second half of the 20th century. By demanding that attention be paid to the study of women’s roles, contributions, and experiences in society, she has contributed to the successes of the feminist movement, the struggle for gender and racial equality in the United States, and the diversification and development of historical research.
The story of American women’s lives is rich and absorbing, and is still being written every day. The National Women’s History Museum in Alexandria, VA is inspired by the work of Gerda Lerner and other historians who have worked to protect the full account of our nation’s story. The Museum believes that women’s history deserves a national home, a space in our nation’s capital to display, celebrate, and pass on the collective stories of American women to future generations.
You can keep women’s history alive year round, by visiting NWHM’s online exhibits at www.nwhm.org.
Sydnee Winston is Project Coordinator at the National Women’s History Museum.