There is an African proverb that says “women hold up half the sky.” Women constitute half the world’s population, but still have not realized half of the world’s potential, received half of the world’s resources, or exercised half of the world’s power. But women have always been the invisible backbone—unseen but strong—of transforming social movements and of anchor institutions in society: our families, congregations, schools, and communities. March is Women’s History Month in our nation, and a chance to reflect on women’s transformational impact on American history and turn it into inspiration and action for the future.
The National Women’s History Alliance, which champions women’s history across the U.S. all year long, puts it this way: “History helps us learn who we are, but when we don’t know our own history, our power and dreams are immediately diminished. Multicultural American women are overlooked in most mainstream approaches to U.S. history, so the National Women’s History Project champions their accomplishments and leads the drive to write women back into history . . . The impact of women’s history might seem abstract to some, and less pressing than the immediate struggles of working women today. But to ignore the vital role that women’s dreams and accomplishments play in our own lives would be a great mistake. We draw strength and inspiration from those who came before us—and those remarkable women working among us today.”
This annual observance is marking an anniversary this year. Its origins in the United States began 45 years ago in 1978, when the Education Task Force of Sonoma County, California’s Commission on the Status of Women first celebrated “Women’s History Week” in Santa Rosa. They chose the week that included March 8, International Women’s Day, since that had already been celebrated in many countries for much of the 20th century and officially recognized by the United Nations one year earlier as a day to acknowledge women’s contributions and call for women’s economic, political, and civil rights. Women historians and community leaders quickly spread the demand for a national commemoration, and in 1980 President Jimmy Carter responded by issuing the first presidential proclamation designating March 2-8 as National Women’s History Week.
President Carter’s proclamation read: “From the first settlers who came to our shores, from the first American Indian families who befriended them, men and women have worked together to build this nation. 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 was as vital as that of the men whose names we know so well. As Dr. Gerda Lerner has noted, ‘Women’s history is women’s right – an essential and indispensable heritage from which we can draw pride, comfort, courage, and long-range vision’ . . . 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. This goal can be achieved by ratifying the 27th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states that ‘Equality of Rights under the Law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.’”
Of course, the measure that President Carter then hoped would become the 27th Amendment, the Equal Rights Amendment, still has not been enshrined into the Constitution. March formally became a full Women’s History Month in the U.S. following a 1987 Congressional resolution, but 45 years after that fledgling Women’s History Week, women’s rights are under renewed attack in our nation, and American women have not yet received equality on a range of key measures, including equal pay. One of those measures of disparate outcomes hangs in the balance right now: as the Supreme Court hears arguments this week on whether to strike down President Biden’s plan to cancel $10,000 of student loan debt for low- to middle-income borrowers, women are facing a disproportionate threat. Women hold two-thirds of student loan debt in our nation. Black women, who often have fewer family wealth resources to pay for higher education, have the highest average totals. For many of these women and their families, the Biden administration’s plan would bring critical relief. Now, as the Supreme Court considers the challenges to the student loan forgiveness plan from six Republican-led states and two plaintiffs, once again women have the most to gain—or lose.
Women’s chances are still unequal in our nation, but our will is not and never has been. As a growing number of women gain political power all the way to the highest levels, and a growing number of young women realize how critical it is to use to use their power to vote in every election, women are once again poised to lead transforming and necessary change.