Revisiting Women’s History Month

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In late February, at the cusp of Women’s History Month, Stephen Colbert interviewed women’s studies author, Stephanie Coontz. In typical Colbert fashion, he cajoles Coontz as she discusses, A Strange Stirring, her new book about Betty Friedan’s, Feminine Mystique. Colbert challenged her to prove that women really had it as bad as Friedan claimed. America has a tradition of using commemorative holidays to bring out the experiences of acknowledged underrepresented voices, but this tradition is also awash with failed expectations and missed opportunities. Current celebrations have shifted quite far from the ideas upon which the holidays were originally based. They are often ‘honored’ with an institutionalized passivity, and fail to acknowledge that one month a year is not enough to address continuing inequality and human suffering.

The original Mother’s Day Proclamation was written in 1870 by author and song-writer, Julia Ward Howe. Proposed as a way to reunite families torn apart by the Civil War, Howe called for a day when mothers of soldiers should rise up to denounce violence and war. The idea was taken up again by Ann Jarvis in the 1910s after the death of her own mother, a suffrage activist herself. who was largely responsible for the federal attention the idea received.

In 1914, Woodrow Wilson proclaimed May 9 to be Mother’s Day. This was the first commemorative holiday recognized by the United States (US) federal government The official plan for the holiday was for a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country by displaying the US flag on all government buildings. Wilson’s mild-mannered proclamation was a far cry from the original intent of this holiday. It was, in fact, an attempt to nullify the increasing pressures of women’s suffrage. Suffrage activists did not accept this as the end of their journey to equal representation. Organizers instead used this act of tokenism to their advantage, further fueling their indignation and dedication. It was a time to act, not celebrate. These strong women continue advocating for their cause and a few years later, women gained the right to vote.

Rather than being a call to action and continued struggles for equality, commemorative holidays today are more commonly viewed as a static tribute to how far we’ve come. In 1987, when Ronald Reagen proclaimed March to be Women’s History Month, he called upon Americans to honor the achievements of American women. This translates to public school students memorizing facts about women and recitations in classrooms. Libraries publish book lists of traditional female authors, but rarely include the work of established contemporary authors such as Coontz (unfortunately). Post offices peddle commemorative stamps of Susan B. Anthony or Rosa Parks next to Snoopy and Woodstock. Outside of these institutional, orchestrated responses, little is done by the general public to contextualize the ideas in their own lives.

I attribute this perfunctory attitude toward commemorative holidays to the business-as-usual approach to awareness, and to the flurry of partially recognized commemorative holidays. From holidays sponsored by federal programs, such as the Department of Homeland Security’s National Cybersecurity Awareness Month, to local holidays recognized by city officials, such as Champaign-Urbana’s own infamous Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day. The range and scope of holidays send mixed messages regarding the relative significance of the issues being addressed and the meanings these events hold. On top of this, public schools and other government programs attempt to provide some formal narrative for such events, but this typically leads to sterilized presentations with little sense of personal relevance. Commemorative holidays often completely disconnected from the original intentions that prompted them in the first place.

Colbert was partially correct when he described the problems in Friedan’s book as those of upper-middle class, mostly white, married, suburban mothers in the 1950s. In fact, it was that very rationale that was used to keep them in the home by men, by their parents, and often by their own consciences, internalizing the shame they felt for complaining when there were graver injustices others were experiencing in other parts of the world. Had women responded by closing their mouths and settling, there may not have been a civil rights movement, equal opportunity, or reproductive rights policies. Instead, different groups of the underrepresented sought each other out and fought together. Those from all walks of life protested for the common good of all members of society.

Whatever flaws they have, commemorative holidays do present opportunities for meaningful learning and action. It’s the responsibility of the citizenry to recognize an opportunity when presented with one, and to act as the activists of the 1910s did. When Wilson threw them the symbolic bone of Mother’s Day, they took that bone and demanded a steak. Commemorative holidays are a testament to being halfway there, but these are not times to rest on our successes. It was people’s actions that created the issues these holidays reflect, and the call to action should be continued through them. Every commemorative holiday should remind us to fight intolerance and injustice together as a community.

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