Women’s History Month Began Among the Grape Vines

Who would guess that Women’s History Month is the result of a movement that began in a small agricultural town in Northern California, located among the towering redwoods and rolling acres of chardonnay and pinot noir grapes of Sonoma County?

But that’s exactly what the city of Santa Rosa did. In 1978, the year I moved there to teach English literature at the community college, the Sonoma County Commission on the Status of Women quietly declared a “Women’s History Week” to coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8.

In response, local schools planned special programs, community women gave presentations and a prize was offered for the best student essay on “Real Women.” The week ended with a celebratory parade through the city’s funky downtown.

Molly MacGregor, one of the organizers, shared the idea a year later with participants attending the Women’s History Institute at Sarah Lawrence College, and they in turn not only wanted to hold similar events in their hometowns but committed to lobbying for a national celebration. Just two years later, in February 1980, President Jimmy Carter issued the first Presidential Proclamation declaring the week of March 8, 1980, as National Women’s History Week.

Carter, who had urged ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, noted,

Understanding the true history of our country will help us to comprehend the need for full equality under the law for all our people.

Later that year, then-Rep. (now Sen.) Barbara Mikulski and still-Sen. Orrin Hatch (yes, Orrin Hatch!) co-sponsored a congressional resolution for National Women’s History Week for the following year as well.

State departments of education saw the designation as an opportunity to achieve equity within classrooms—a requirement of the federal education law known as Title IX, which has passed in 1972—and across the country teaching materials and strategies were developed to “write women back into history.” By 1986, enough momentum had been built to lobby Congress again; the following year, President Ronald Reagan (yes, Ronald Reagan!) signed a law permanently designating March as National Women’s History Month.

Earlier this month, as the annual celebration kicked off once again, President Obama declared,

As we honor the women who have shaped our Nation, we must remember that we are tasked with writing the next chapter of women’s history. Only if we teach our daughters that no obstacle is too great for them, that no ceiling can block their ascent, will we inspire them to reach for their highest aspirations and achieve true equality.

Pretty inspiring stuff. And all from a little office in Sonoma County, about a mile from where I teach. At Santa Rosa Junior College, we’ve recognized Women’s History Week—then Month—for 30 years, organizing events for students, staff and the broader community.

This year, those included a discussion of gender equity in Sweden by Swedish exchange students, an insider look at women’s sports since Title IX, a photographer who published a book entitled Chicks on Bikes: a Portrait of Women Motorcyclists and a performance by the first all women’s mariachi band in the Bay Area, Mariachi Femenil Orgullo Mexicano.

Thirty years is a wonderful milestone, but 2010’s celebration was tinged with sadness. In January, we lost Mary Ruthsdotter, one of the co-founders, developers, promoters and great spirits of the National Women’s History Alliance—the clearinghouse for curriculum, training and materials that have helped teachers and communities restore women to their rightful place in the national curriculum.

Ruthsdotter’s daughter, Alice Crawford, called her mother “a kick-ass activist.” And that’s just the sort of woman we need to change history.


Melissa Kort teaches literature and composition at Santa Rosa (CA) Junior College. She writes on topics ranging from Charles Dickens and photography to women’s history.