Women's past accomplishments (and failures) deserve to be studied, appreciated, criticized, and otherwise actively engaged—not passively cheered in a banal annual celebration.
Who's afraid of Women's History Month?
I am, a little. Celebrations of Women's History Month seem to be slouching toward banality. Consider one organization's "theme" (what? is this a baby shower?) for this year:
After considering over 100 ideas and suggestions sent in by our amazing supporters, we are proud to announce the theme for National Women's History Month 2013:
"Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination:
Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics"
Then, oddly, parenthetically, anticlimactically, comes this explanation:
We added the sub-heading to emphasize that we are honoring women in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.
Seems a bit deflating. Maybe it's that we have reached the "end of men," after all, as Hanna Rosin compellingly argued, and that makes Women's History Month seems superfluous and tacky, like an '80's perm.
I'm all for women's history, of course. But Women's History Month? Not so much. Because if history is the marathon, Women's History Month is merely the cheering from the sidelines.
A long view of women's history is important because history, as we all know, is written by the victors. We must be intentional about correcting the record to account for past injustices and oversights toward women (and many others) so as to prevent the same in the future. It is important to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of women and to lament their past and present potential, laid waste by the sieve of sexism.
I think, for example, of a recent conversation I had with a colleague who asked me why the Women's Literature course I teach fulfills our degree program's "diversity" requirement:
"Why shouldn't it?" I answered him. "In the western canon, literature by any group other than dead white men represents 'diversity'."
"But women are no longer a minority," my colleague argued. "They now outnumber men in numbers and education."
"Yes, that may be true, for now," I answered. Then I hit lecture mode. "But it's not like we can go back in history and rewrite the millennia-long canon of literature to include women writers that didn't exist because they were denied the opportunity and skills to write. Or give the few that did manage to write a better education so their potential could be fulfilled. There's no resurrecting Shakespeare's sister and cultivating the conditions that would have permitted her to rival her brother as a great playwright. So to go back and study the few women writers who did manage to create literature, aesthetically divergent from and at times inferior to the work of their male counterparts, is assuredly to experience a body of literature that developed alongside but apart from that of those in power."
"Oh," my colleague said.
And I headed off to class.
There we read Elizabeth Cady Stanton's Declaration of Sentiments, delivered in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention, a work that argues for complete integration of women's lives, rights, and works into the rest of society, not its continued slicing and dicing into segregated fragments:
The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.
He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice.
He has withheld from her rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men--both natives and foreigners.
Having deprived her of this first right of a citizen, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her without representation in the halls of legislation, he has oppressed her on all sides.
He has made her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead.
He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns.
. . .
He has monopolized nearly all the profitable employments, and from those she is permitted to follow, she receives but a scanty remuneration. He closes against her all the avenues to wealth and distinction which he considers most honorable to himself. As a teacher of theology, medicine, or law, she is not known.
He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education, all colleges being closed against her.
He allows her in church, as well as state, but a subordinate position, claiming apostolic authority for her exclusion from the ministry, and, with some exceptions, from any public participation in the affairs of the church.
He has created a false public sentiment by giving to the world a different code of morals for men and women, by which moral delinquencies which exclude women from society, are not only tolerated, but deemed of little account in man.
He has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and to her God.
He has endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.
Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement of one-half the people of this country, their social and religious degradation—in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States.
A declaration like this needs no propping with a Women's History Month "theme." No less than women's history is in such a text: the past injustices, the needed reparations, the blueprint for not reapeating the same mistakes again. Yet, the recognition by Congress in 1987 of Women's History Month and its continued proclamation by the President each year since 1995 seems, next to such a vigorous text, like the tail trying limply to wag the dog.
The real work is in developing the critical apparatus for evaluating history, as given, as well as the works that history has given us. When we study the women writers, activists, artists, and scientists who imagined and created despite lacking education, opportunity, and respect, we must analyze their work in terms of both their achievements and their shortcomings. There can be no sweeping under the rug or indiscriminate applause. Sound evaluation occurs within the tensions that ever exist between universal ideals and contextual realities. Justly judging the past is crucial to a just future. It's about critical thinking, not cheerleading.
The women's history of the future is being made now. Unlike the women's literature of the past which isn't subject to a do-over, we can shape now what will be history tomorrow. Making that history better for women—whether through higher education, or through parenting, befriending, mentoring, or employing—takes sustained, continued effort all year, over the years. By cultivating better thinkers, more reliable forms of scholarship, higher quality art, more compassionate citizens, and more just systems we can take a stronger hand in making that history. This requires far more prolonged and sustained work than that of a yearly celebration.
In fact, setting aside a month to honor women—or Blacks or Jewish Americans or Asian Pacific Americans or any other of countless honorees—is a two-sided coin: The honor it bestows marks, yet also perpetuates, their marginalization. Perhaps no harm and a little good can be done with a month-long commemoration. But on the face of human history, Women's History Month is not a beauty mark, but a scar. It is a sign of past hurt and continued healing. I hope for the day the scar vanishes into history and is visible no more.
This piece first appeared in theatlantic.com