Why Women’s History Month Must Go
Almost 250 years after Abigail Adams’ plea to “Remember the ladies,” we’re still an afterthought
As a woman who wrote a book rooted in women’s empowerment and intersectional feminism, I have had many people wish me a happy Women’s History Month. I’ve also been asked to write articles and will be giving talks in honor of the month. While I’ve been honored to participate, the truth is I feel like a bit of a hypocrite. Why? Because while I think Women’s History Month is necessary, I am appalled by the concept.
Women are half the population. Why are we celebrating being given 1/12 of the year? And why do we not find it unconscionable that during that 1/12 of the year we largely give only cursory lip service to all but a very inaccurately defined idea of womanhood and success?
Women’s History Month simply should not have to exist. Nor should Black History Month or any other months celebrating alternatives to White men’s history.
These circumscribed months are necessary because of the pervasive, pernicious sexism, racism and other isms in our country. They are also a flimsy little Band-Aid on the gaping wound which slices through our sanitized version of American history.
First and foremost, the reason we have Women’s History Month is because women have been all but wiped from our history books. When we learn about history, we still primarily learn about the history of White men — the battles they fought, the bills they passed, the companies they built.
What was happening to everyone else during this time? Did we simply not exist? Did none of our actions shape history?
You may argue that we approach history this way because White men have been in charge, thus they were the ones “doing” stuff, and therefore, they created “history.”
That begs the question: what is history? Are politics and money-making and battles the only “history” that matters? Well, let’s pretend that is true for a moment. Even if this were the case, women who had access to, and were closely aligned with, White men were often hugely influential in that version of history… They simply did so largely behind the scenes. Women married to powerful men often were well educated and played a pivotal role in their husband’s success. They were sounding boards for political advisors and business ventures.
Secondly, and more importantly, we are using a tired model of history — one that dictates we only report the history of society’s victors. When we talk about history, we talk about fabulously successful men — men like Thomas Willing. Born in 1731, the entrepreneurial Willing was one of our first millionaires. Exciting! He built his fortune selling sugar, rum and molasses. Fantastic! The American Spirit! He was the Mayor of Philadelphia and later the first President of two major banks, the Bank of North America and First Bank of The United States. What a guy!
What we don’t talk about is that he also made his money selling enslaved people from Africa and the West Indies. We also don’t talk about the fact that even if a woman wanted to, she could not have done what Willing did. Willing died in 1821. The Married Woman’s Property Act was not passed in New York until 1848. That marked the first time in America that a woman could enter contracts without her husband co-signing, keep her own inheritance, or file a lawsuit solo. In other words, until then married women had zero financial and legal rights, and certainly did not have the legal financial power or freedom to start a business. Stunningly, it wasn’t until the 1900s that every state in the United States had followed New York’s lead. Oh, and lest you think this is ancient history- the Equal Credit Opportunity Act wasn’t signed until 1974. Until that year, women did not have the right to get a credit card separate from her husband. If you were single and wanted a credit card… Well, ya shoulda gotten married! (Now go try to build a business without having access to credit. Good luck!)
But we don’t talk about this kind of history.
When we talk about history’s millionaires, we don’t include in the equation that the success of early millionaires was often built on the backs of others suffering. We don’t mention that more than half the population (women and men of color, for example) were not legally allowed to compete, or had near insurmountable barriers not so long ago.
Finally, Women’s History Month tends to focus primarily on the history of White women. You often see women’s “success stories” highlighted who have done well by playing by the rules created to perpetuate power. These women worked well within the system. On the other hand, women who have worked to dismantle a system that only serves a very small number of people in our population are usually not the focus of Women’s History Month.
Take, for example, Angela Davis. In 1972 Davis was being unjustly interrogated in jail and used the opportunity, while interrogated, to educate the guards on systemic racism and anti-Black violence. Her words were so powerful and should have been changing the hearts and minds of those who have seen it for decades. Yet few have seen it. This should be one of the most historic, transformative moments in history. It should be foundational when we talk about race. And yet so many Americans do not even know the moment exists.
Should we get rid of Women’s History Month? Or Black History Month? Or Queer Pride Month? Absolutely not. In order to do this, we would have to begin to value human beings differently, and I don’t know that we are ready to do that.
To do that we would need to believe that the oral history of an enslaved Black woman before the Civil War is just as important as the accomplishments of our White male leaders from that time. We would need to value her story. We would need to have read Abigail Adams entire letter imploring her husband, future President John Adams, to “Remember the ladies.” We would need to know what it meant for history when her words fell on deaf ears. We would need to believe the fact that middle passage was responsible for the murder of millions of Black people is important to understand, and that mothers were on those ships, watching their children die brutal and inhuman deaths. We would need to understand the historical reverberations such collective trauma can create intergenerationally. We would need to believe that talking about the history of birth and abortion and women’s mental health etches a direct line to the experiences of women in 2021. And we would need embrace the idea that while many of our stories are exclusive to the Brown, Black, White, or Queer experience, all of our stories comprise the reach and inclusive tapestry that is womanhood. This tapestry is created by thousands of oral and written histories worth telling. We must fight to be sure that we tell them.
The reality is that if we truly understood history — if all humans were integrated into history, we would have a more educated populace. Understand the historical intersection of racism and sexism, and you better understand why we are such a divided and troubled nation.
We have not been taught history in this country. We have been taught propaganda about what kind of stories, and whose stories, have value. This needs to stop.
So yes, let’s celebrate Women’s History Month… for now. Let’s learn all we can during Black History Month…. for now. Let’s learn, not just about Seneca Falls in Women’s History Month, but about huge events like Rosewood and Stonewall that intersected with Black women and Queer women’s experiences. Let’s work like hell to insist that we finally begin to tell the real history of the United States of America every day of the year, and let’s learn from the voices of our past. They have important messages for us.
After all, Abigail Adams was not demurely asking her husband to be kind to women. When her husband was talking revolution at the Continental Congress, Adams wrote him, arguing that liberty was hollow if women were not included. And if women were ignored, well, the future First Lady of the United States threatened revolution:
“I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for Liberty cannot be Eaquelly Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs…. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”
Nearly two hundred years later Angela Davis’ famous quotes have put a modern spin on Adams timeless sentiments.
“Whenever you conceptualize social justice struggles, you will always defeat your own purposes if you can’t imagine the people around who you are struggling as equal partners,” and, “Revolution is a serious thing, the most serious thing about a revolutionary’s life. When one commits oneself to struggle, it must be for a lifetime.”
Remember the Ladies… but not just one month of the year. Remember the Ladies every time you talk of the history of our nation. Remember Abigail and Angela and all the other women whose brilliant voices were devalued and discarded. Remember them. Remember our stories. Remember the ladies.
[Thanks to Kieren Munson-Burke & Annabella Mead-VanCort for their input. Beth Prentice, your final edits were so helpful!]