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Women's History Month Highlight

Women's History Month: Embracing Achievements, Encountering Push-Backs

By: Marilyn Rubin

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By: Mary Guy

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This March marks the 27th year that the United States is celebrating women’s history month. This special month highlights women’s contributions to the nation’s history and applauds the journey to gender equity. Concurrently, the #EmbraceEquity theme for the 2023 International Woman’s Day, an event observed on March 8th around the globe, calls for countries to challenge gender stereotypes and to pursue a world where difference is valued and celebrated.

Before reviewing the past year’s embrace of equity – and the push-back that accompanied it – we describe the inter-twined evolution of both these commemorations: Women’s History Month and International Woman’s Day. According to most accounts, International Woman’s Day did not start as a day to celebrate women’s achievements. It began in New York City on February 28, 1909 to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the City’s garment industry strike. The strike, led by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, was held to protest abominable working conditions and low wages being paid to the predominantly female immigrant workforce in the City’s garment factories. The following year, the Socialist Party of America declared the first National Woman's Day.

In 1910, the 100 women attending the International Conference of Working Women held in Copenhagen agreed unanimously to make the day international, but with no fixed date. The March 8th day, celebrated today as International Women’s Day, commemorates the beginning of the strike by Russian women in 1917 demanding "bread and peace.” The strike began on February 23rd, on the Julian calendar then used in Russia, This day in the Gregorian calendar is March 8th. The strike is viewed by many as the catalyst that sparked the Russian Revolution.

In 1975, the United Nations designated March 8th as the official International Woman’s Day. In the U.S., where women’s contributions to the nation’s history were not part of the public consciousness, it took a while to catch up with the rest of the world. President Jimmy Carter issued the first Presidential Proclamation in 1980 declaring Women’s History Week to align with International Women’s Day. In 1987, after being petitioned by the National Women’s History Project, Congress designated the month of March 1987 as Women's History Month. U.S. presidents have issued proclamations every year since 1988 designating March as Women's History Month.

The past year brought significant achievements for women in the U.S., from fighter pilots, to Congress, to college presidents, to professional organizations, to sports. It was women who flew the jets over last month’s Super Bowl. In politics, women showed gains at all levels of government. As a result of the November 2022 elections, the 124 women who were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives now account for 28.6 percent of all House members, the largestproportion of women to ever hold House seats. There were also intersectional firsts: Illinois elected its first Latina and Pennsylvania its first Black woman to serve in the House. In the Senate, where 25 percent of its members are now women, Alabama is represented by its first female senator, giving the state both a female senator and governor. At the state level, the 12 elected female governors represent the most women to concurrently hold the highest state office. On the local level, of the 100 most populous cities in the US, 33 have female mayors. Of these, nine are Black, three are Latina, and five are Asian American/Pacific Islanders.

The world of higher education, which has been male-dominated since its origins, is also increasingly recognizing women. To cite just one example, Claudine Gay, distinguished scholar of democracy and political participation, was named the second woman and the first person of color to be president of Harvard University. And professional organizations such as NAPA continue to become more gender diverse and inclusive. From its earliest years when just one or two women were inducted as Fellows annually, the proportion of women inductees is now hovering around 50 percent and half of the Academy’s standing committees are chaired or co-chaired by women.

Another milestone for women over the past year was the appointment of a woman of color to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. But the Supreme Court was also the locus of the year’s major push-back against women with its ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The decision that overturned Roe v. Wade upended the 50-year Constitutional right of women to privacy and to have control over their bodies. Since Dobbs, several states have outlawed provision of abortion services. Many of these are southern states with large Black and Latina populations and Plains states with large Indigenous populations.

Further evidence of the push-back is that, aside from the victory of the U.S. women’s soccer team to gain pay equity, there has been little progress in closing the gender wage gap, with women of color bearing the brunt of the disparity. In 2021, women working full-time earned 84 cents for every dollar earned by men, compared with 83 cents in 2020. In 2021, Latinas and Native American women working full time earned 57 cents for every dollar, and Black women earned 67 cents for every dollar earned by white, non-Hispanic men. These numbers fail to tell the full story of the impact that Covid-19 had on the wage gap. Women are overrepresented in low-wage and part-time occupations that were hit hardest by the pandemic. They are also more likely to shoulder caregiving duties, which often left them with no choice but to scale back their work hours or quit their jobs.

To end on a sweeter note, Mars has announced it will release a special packet of M&Ms to celebrate International Women's Day. These first-ever all female limited-edition packets will feature its three female M&Ms – Purple, Brown, and Green. To celebrate them, Mars is supporting organizations that are committed to uplifting and empowering women.

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