Celebrating Through Crisis: Three Activists Across Generations on What Women’s History Month Means to Them

March is Women’s History Month, a time to celebrate women barrier breakers and history-makers both past and present.

Of course, this year, Women’s History Month is taking place during an unprecedented time as our nation reels in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

During this crisis, women—who are breadwinners in half of U.S. families with minor children and are still responsible for the bulk of family caregiving—are bearing a disproportionate burden.

Many workers on the frontlines—nurses, cashiers, domestic workers and farm workers—tend to be women, especially women of color, in already underpaid professions without access to critical benefits like paid sick days or paid leave.

In that sense, it is all the more important to continue to celebrate women’s history and acknowledge women’s worth and contributions to the world, to our families and our communities.

We should celebrate even as we see the disheartening evidence that our labor—both paid and unpaid—is not valued as it should be. We spoke with three activists for women’s equality and social justice and asked them each one question:

What does Women’s History Month mean to you?

Judith Lichtman, past president and current senior advisor for the National Partnership for Women and Families:

Judith Levine Lichtman has been called a guiding and influential force for the women’s movement. (State Bar of Wisconsin)

“All too often in the contemporary United States, women’s contribution—whether it be to science or art or politics or almost any sphere you can think of—women’s contribution is left off the map. It’s left out of the discussion and it’s left out of the history books.

“The importance of having a dedicated month is to highlight women’s contributions to this country and really to the world.

“At the same time, I think it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the celebration of women’s accomplishments and women’s contributions to this world and its economy and its well-being is something to really celebrate.

“On the other hand, one needs to ask oneself: Why do we need a month for that celebration? Why are we not acknowledging and celebrating women’s contributions just as we do men’s, the other 11 months?

“I glory in the celebration of the month and at the same time I repel from the fact that we’ve got 11 other months that we ought to be celebrating women’s contributions. I think the most exciting thing for me about Women’s History Month is when I am learning about the contributions of somebody I never heard about, and that tells me that I have so much to learn.”

Jocelyn Frye, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress:

Prior to joining American Progress, Frye served for four years as deputy assistant to the President Obama and director of policy and special projects for the Michelle Obama. (Center for American Progress)

“Women’s History Month … is an opportunity to reflect on and elevate the critical and essential role that women play across our society.

“While celebrating women’s history should never be confined to one particular day or even one month, it is useful for us to step back and think about women’s contributions in a much more comprehensive and holistic way. It’s at least one month that is set aside for people to do just that. It reminds us not only to celebrate women’s contributions, but it also reminds us of the vision that women bring to the table and the unique diversity of women throughout our society—the unique perspectives that they bring to enrich the conversation and the unique experiences that they offer to shape our understanding of the world. We can reflect on the myriad of ways that women have shaped and fueled our society and the progress of our society. All of those are reasons why I think the month is important.

“On a personal level, it also reminds me of the women who I’ve encountered in my own life and who have been instrumental in my progress and my growth and my ability to live the life that I want to live. We unfortunately don’t think about that enough, but I find that this is a month when I think about that more. I think about women who may not be names that people know – whether it’s my mom or my aunts or other people in my family. It’s important to reflect on the women in your life and celebrate them too.”

Paula Molina Acosta, student activist at the University of Maryland at College Park:

Molina Acosta is a Women’s Studies major and Creative Writing minor. She has interned at Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington and the National Partnership for Women and Families. She is currently interning with the office of Rep. Rosa DeLauro. (University of Maryland)

“When you take time to learn women’s history, you honor the unspoken half of world history.

“Learning about that past forces me to confront a lot of pain and grief. For every famous figure who rose above her circumstances, there are thousands unnamed and forgotten who were trapped where they were.

“But Women’s History Month is also a time of celebrating joy, especially as an activist. Women are the backbone not only of feminist movements, but of every major struggle in history and around the world. Against all odds, women have been fighting the fight for centuries. And they’ve been winning!

“I am where I am today because of our victories—as a woman of color, I have the right to vote thanks to the organizing efforts of black women activists like Ella Baker.

“As a lesbian, I owe my safety and visibility to Barbara Gittings.

“As a writer, I owe my voice to women as far back as Sappho and all the way up to Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldúa.

“There’s a lot of joy in being a woman, and by far one of the greatest is remembering these predecessors, not only because I am here because of them, but because they were not so different from me.

“Today’s troubles are not special or new, they’re the continuation of old problems that women have been struggling against for centuries. When I fail, I know that I’m not the first to do so, and I won’t be the last. When I succeed, it is because of what they have taught me.

“Women’s History Month is a reminder that all daring and determined women today are in good company.”

The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-moving.

During this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media.

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National Partnership for Women & Families is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group dedicated to promoting fairness in the workplace, reproductive health and rights, access to quality, affordable health care and policies that help all people meet the dual demands of work and family. More information is available at NationalPartnership.org.