March is Women’s History Month, and just as women today have more opportunity than ever before, the honorary month itself has evolved from being simply an “International Women’s Day” in 1911, still celebrated March 8, to expanding to a “Women’s History Week,” first celebrated in 1978 in Sonoma County, to finally having fourteen states declare March as Women’s History Month by 1986. Since 1988, U.S. presidents have issued annual proclamations designating the month of March as Women’s History Month.
According to Flora Lee Ganzler, retired Rancho Cotate High School history teacher, two Sonoma County women were particularly responsible for spearheading the, ultimately, nationwide movement. Mary Ruthsdotter co-founded the National Women’s History Project along with Molly MacGregor in 1980. They involved the Sonoma County Office of Education, produced curriculum guides, teacher training programs and posters about women’s history. In addition, they worked at obtaining congressional resolutions and presidential proclamations designating Women’s History Week and later, Women’s History Month.
“These two women spearheaded, in Sonoma County, the whole notion of celebrating women,” says Ganzler. “Sonoma County is the birthplace of a lot of interesting ideas. You had a lot of people come up in the ‘60s and early ‘70s who were thinking of an alternative lifestyle. Berkeley was too much and San Francisco was too much so they came up here and slowly but surely created this new reality…. more and more people moved here because of the consciousness that was being developed.”
Since its start, many state departments of education supported the commemoration of Women’s History Month to promote gender equality in the classroom, also motivated by Title IX, a U.S. federal civil rights law that was passed as part of the Education Amendments of 1972, which protected people from gender discrimination in education programs that receive federal financial assistance.
“Since 1972 both the inclusive results for Title IX and later the Women’s History week provided opportunities for the students to learn more about their possible pursuits in sports, teams and careers,” says Kate McGerity, social studies teacher for Rancho Cotate High School.
Students today are coming of age in an exciting time for women. In business, there has been a tremendous rise in women’s entrepreneurship over the past two decades. According to the 2017 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report commissioned by American Express, there are an estimated 11.6 million women-owned businesses in the United States. Since 1997, the number of women-owned businesses has grown 114 percent compared to the overall national growth rate of 44 percent for all businesses.
“Women’s leadership roles have changed tremendously over the past few decades,” says Gina Belforte, Mayor of Rohnert Park. “Not enough, but we’ve made great inroads. When I was a kid growing up, there weren’t any female doctors. There weren’t really any female attorneys and only men were in accounting. Government was all male-driven. You didn’t see city councils that had women on them or supervisors. So when you look at those last few decades, 40 to 50 years, things have changed dramatically.”
While women have made great strides in education, business, government and overall leadership, there are still significant gender inequalities in our nation. According to The Center for American Women and Politics, while the percentage of Congress made up by women has steadily increased, statewide elective positions held by women have decreased from their peak of 27.6 percent in 2001. As of 2013, only ten in the one hundred largest cities in the United States had female mayors. And even though females started outnumbering males in higher education in 1992, the nationwide gender wage gap currently still stands at approximately 19.5 percent, according to US Census Bureau data.
“I think the MeToo movement has brought strong awareness to folks that nothing is to be taken for granted,” says Ganzler. “Thomas Jefferson said, ‘The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.’ From that statement I take the notion that even though you have this freedom it doesn’t mean you’ll keep it unless you continue to pay attention. You cannot think that just because something has happened yesterday, the day before, that it will happen in the future unless you continue to pay attention.”
For Belforte, who entered the business world in the mid-1980s when it was not easy for women and harassment on the job was commonplace, the future will hopefully bring an equality not based on a person’s gender, but based on their skills and qualifications.
“I really hope in the next few decades that it’s not about whether you’re a man or a woman, it’s what your qualifications for the job are,” says Belforte. “Even today I still see some things where I shake my head. We really do have a long way to go. Most CEOs of organizations are men. I still hear ‘joking’ comments such as, ‘Well it’s a woman, what do you expect.’ People will even talk about the tone of a woman’s voice or how she commands a room versus a man’s voice. It really should just be the qualifications of the person.”
Women’s History Month is the perfect opportunity for our schools and communities to reflect on the hard work, sacrifices and dedication all the women that came before experienced, as well as consider how we should proceed into the future with the ultimate goal of equality for all.
“The inclusiveness of both men and women in our history benefits young men and women,” says McGerity. “It is important to encourage the understanding of experiences and expectations of successful women. The understanding can help the young women today to think about themselves and their possibilities for becoming the problem solvers in their future.”
Interestingly, because of the great strides women have made over the past few decades, girls and young women of today often do not realize the hardships women in history had to endure. While it is commendable that today female students would not hesitate pursuing certain degrees, careers, or opportunities unavailable to them decades ago, Women’s History Month nevertheless serves as a reminder to all young women of how their foremothers paved the way.
“My daughter is 26 and I asked her if she thought that the younger generations take it [women’s fight for equality] for granted and she said ‘absolutely,’” says Belforte. “She said, ‘We hardly touch on the suffragette movement. They don’t go into it in depth in school and it was through my own research that I understood how women were thrown into jail, force-fed, shocked and all the different horrible things done to them because they only wanted the right to vote. We don’t get taught that and we don’t get it and when we see our moms in those positions we have no idea what you went through. We just think it’s normal.’”
Hearing her daughter’s response made Belforte realize the importance of teaching students today about women in history. She also believes that we should use our current roles in leadership to continue helping the next generation of women.
“I think the one thing we can do to help young girls is to get them around mentors,” says Belforte. “It doesn’t necessarily just have to be women. I had some great male mentors in my life. It’s all about believing in your abilities. Our generation owes the generation below us to help mentor them and help them be successful.”