In March of 1910, the Second International Conference of Women was held in Copenhagen, where nearly 100 women, representing 17 countries, decided that the first “International Woman’s Day” would be celebrated the next year. March 8, 1911, marked the first time women’s rights and their contributions were recognized.
It took many decades, but the movement grew from a single day to a week of recognition. In 1978, the Education Task Force of the Sonoma County (Calif.) Commission on the Status of Women was disturbed by the lack of information on prominent women in history being taught in public schools. They pushed to expand Woman’s Day to Women’s History Week and saw more than 100 women step up to do classroom presentations. Their “Real Women” essay contest received hundreds of entries and the next year, their efforts caught national attention.
In February 1980, President Jimmy Carter declared the first National Women’s History Week, saying, in part: "From the first settlers who came to our shores, from the first American Indian families who befriended them, men and women have worked together to build this Nation. Too often, the women were unsung and sometimes their contributions went unnoticed. But the achievements, leadership, courage, strength and love of the women who built America was as vital as that of the men whose names we know so well.”
By 1987, Congress had declared the entire month of March as National Women’s History Month and now, more than 30 years later, we continue to recognize women’s achievements all month. (Although, let’s be clear, we shouldn’t limit that recognition to one month out of the year.)
Each year has a theme. This year's is: Visionary Women: Champions of Peace & Non-violence.
“This year we honor women who have led efforts to end war, violence, and injustice and pioneered the use of nonviolence to change society,” the National Women’s History Alliance said. “For generations, women have resolved conflicts in their homes, schools, and communities. They have rejected violence as counterproductive and stressed the need to restore respect, establish justice, and reduce the causes of conflict as the surest way to peace.”
Surely we see examples of that in Malala, who advocates for education as the ultimate “weapon,” and in the work of Dr. Valerie Hudson, former Brigham Young University professor and an expert on international security and foreign policy analysis. She is the co-author of the book “Sex and World Peace,” which connects the success of a country with the security of its women — a well-researched, fascinating and disturbing read I highly recommend. She is also the originator of the “Women Stats Project,” which uses data visualization to drive home the realities women face worldwide.
Locally, Better Days 2020 is doing a fantastic job of bringing the stories of many of Utah’s female change-makers to the forefront and into the classroom. Stories like Mignon Barker Richmond, an African-American leader in Utah, Alice Kasai, who “devoted her life to empowering, mentoring, and advocating” Japanese-Americans and Mae Timbimboo Parry, “Historian and Matriarch of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone” whose life story was written by her grandson. There are many other stories of some of Utah’s movers and shakers, most of whom are not well-known but should be.
Coretta Scott King has said: “Women, if the soul of the nation is to be saved, I believe that you must become its soul.”
This month, our family will talk about the story of my great-grandmother Freda Billeter who fed hungry men during the Great Depression, and we will re-watch the movie “Hidden Figures.”
What stories about women and their achievements will you be sharing in your families this month?
Holly Richardson, a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune, loves “her”story.