Five Myths about Women’s History Month

International Women’s Day March, Los Angeles, 2017. (Molly Adams / Creative Commons)

March is Women’s History Month—but how much do we think about women’s history?  There are no parades, few monuments, no national holidays (Mother’s Day, falling as it does on a Sunday, has never been declared a federal holiday), and little coverage in primary and secondary education.

And 2020 is a big year for women’s history: it’s the centennial of women’s suffrage in the United States. As a group, women have had the constitutional right to vote for 100 years.

In recent years, Americans have grappled with the question of whether they are ready to elect a woman president.  Delving into the varied histories of women can help us answer such a question, and that’s worth doing.  In part, the answer lies in that more subtle and powerful landscape of everyday life and in our expectations and imaginings of what it means to be a woman in the United States, which has a history.

So, with this year’s celebration of Women’s History Month aligning with the anniversary of suffrage, we wanted to point out some of the recurrent myths about women’s history we come across as historians. 

Myth #1: Women’s History Month is new.

Women’s history has a deep and diverse history.

Although its origins in the university lie in the second-wave feminism of the 1970s, women’s history has existed outside the historical profession since at least the middle of the 1800s, if not earlier.

Suffragists in 1913. (U.S. Embassy The Hague / Creative Commons)

From Elizabeth Ellet’s 1848 Women of the American Revolution to African American women writers of the late 19th century such as Anna Julia Cooper, Frances Harper and Pauline Hopkins, to the work of Cleofas M. Jaramillo preserving family and regional New Mexico traditions in the 1930s, women have been documenting the history of women in the United States for a long time.

Museums and preservation societies across diverse communities and across the country bear the material legacies of these women’s historians as keepers of their own and others’ pasts. Every time you visit one of these institutions and behold the stuff of daily life, you encounter the long history of women’s history, whether it is presented that way or not.

Myth #2: It’s about firsts and accomplishments.

It’s undeniably important to recognize the individual women who broke the gender barrier to become “firsts,” such as Harriet Tubman, not only a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad but the first woman to lead an armed expedition during the U.S. Civil War, and the first black woman to appear on a U.S. postage stamp.

There’s Wilma Mankiller, the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, and Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

We should also commend the things women created of importance to the American nation—including the American Red Cross (Clara Barton) and the United Negro College Fund (Mary McLeod Bethune).

American Red Cross Child welfare examination, Manila, Philippines, 1923. (John Tewell / Creative Commons)

But women’s history is this and more.

It’s late 20th century commitments were to recover and record everyday, lived experience of “ordinary” women.

Women’s history is about the histories of unrecognized women who were caregivers, workers, consumers, and creators—women perhaps just like you or your mother or grandmother.

Women’s history holds that it’s possible to celebrate the contributions of women who were public figures, succeeding on historically male terrain—what women’s historians once called “women worthies”; to recover more of those women who may yet remain unknown to history; and to tell the stories of the vast majority of women who were never famous.

Myth #3: It’s just about women.

Women’s history is about what women did in the past, but it’s also about how society creates the category of “woman” and ideas of womanhood, usually in relationship to those about manhood.

Women Workers Rising rally on International Women’s Day, 2017. (Victoria Pickering / Creative Commons)

Once we start thinking about femininity and how it is formed, presented and claimed historically, investigating masculinity must follow, as the two ideals have existed in opposition to one another.

Therefore, women’s history—although it centers the voices and experiences of persons deemed “female” in the past—necessarily explores the ways in which gender roles shape people’s experiences and identities—men’s as well as women’s.

How do people learn about and understand themselves as male or female or nonbinary? How has that changed over time?

One of the important questions of women’s history is how Americans have created, maintained and recently questioned the check boxes of male and female, because as a nation, Americans have historically poured so much energy into defining and advising girls on how to become women. One of the important tenets is that gender has a history.

Myth #4: It’s not “real” history.

The beautiful thing about women’s history is that it calls into question what history is. For the longest time—between the ancient world and maybe the 1970s—men wrote what we’ve called history: political and military events, technological and scientific firsts, and the biographies and accomplishments of leaders.

That was history; it came down to most of us in classrooms, many of which had George Washington or Abraham Lincoln or the current president hanging in the front, and women were mostly shut out.

This left women to record, remember and celebrate their own histories. They preserved the stuff of their daily lives that provided the important context and contours of everyone’s experiences, from domestic and often unpaid labor of the home, to care work. When they collected clothing, cradles, quilts, they preserved their labor, accomplishments, and literally the historical fabric of women’s experiences.

The objects live on as important evidence of past lives overlooked.

Myth #5: Women’s History Month covers it.

Obviously, one month of events and other acknowledgements won’t cover everything about the history of half of humanity. (Recognition of women’s history month is an increase from Women’s History Week, signed into law in 1981.)

The emergence of women’s history within the historical profession, as well as popular culture through books and films such as Hidden Figures, has done much to remedy historical oversight and absence—what Anne Firor Scott called “a case of historical invisibility.”

Yet, according to a 2017 study, state history standards include only one woman for every three men. Trying to change that by acknowledging the unheralded history of women in American culture matters.

Women’s History Month is one month and one way—but there remains much women’s history to research, write and share. Perhaps regarding every month as women’s history month will help us better understand the historic relationship between gender and power that shapes everything from daily life to electoral politics.

About and

Kathleen Franz is Chair and Curator, Division of Work and Industry, at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.
Kate Haulman is associate professor of history at American University and author of The Politics of Fashion in Eighteenth-Century America.