Women make up half of human history, but you wouldn’t know it by reading a standard history textbook. Rarely have women been adequately and accurately represented in historical texts worldwide, and as a result, their contributions are largely invisible today.
Women’s History Month aims to remedy that.
At UW-Eau Claire, celebrating Women’s History Month is a collaborative effort. Throughout March, events focused on women, gender and sexuality will be sponsored by the combined efforts of the affirmative action office, the EDI Initiative, McIntyre Library, Sodexo, the Women’s and LGBTQ Resource Center, American Indian studies, Latin American studies, women’s studies, the economics department and the communications and journalism department.
The first Women’s History Month event will be an opening reception held on March 1 from 4-6 p.m. in the Hibbard Penthouse. The event is intended to provide a space for informal, interpersonal discussions about women’s history and women’s studies. Refreshments will be served.
Displayed at the reception will be poster-sized photos of around 20 faculty, staff and other individuals affiliated with the women’s studies program. A description of each pictured will highlight their scholarship and how they’ve contributed to the program.
The reception will also feature videos exploring the definition of women’s studies that were produced by students in an introductory multimedia communications class. The videos were a final project assigned by class professor Ellen Mahaffy, UW-Eau Claire communications and journalism associate professor and affiliated faculty member to the women’s studies program. Mahaffy condensed the students’ videos into a short documentary, a film she said pays a much-deserved tribute to the program.
“In essence, we’re celebrating the hard work that women’s studies and women do at this university,” Mahaffy said.
Women’s History Month events also include “Why I Must Come Out,” a UWEC Forum Series event featuring international transgender model and activist Geena Rocero, a presentation on the self-authoring agency of transgender Latinas’ makeup application by University of Minnesota professor Karla Padrón, and the annual women’s studies student awards ceremony. A complete calendar of Women’s History Month events can be found here.
Mahaffy said that the events provide an opportunity for students, faculty, and community members to make new connections and gain a better understanding of the women’s studies program.
“This is a good chance to really see the good work that the program’s doing, the coalition’s doing, and that we actually hopefully can open some minds and eyes,” Mahaffy said. “I think any program we do on campus is focused on developing a more global society.”
While the scope of Women’s History Month is quite wide today, its initial focus was on the economic injustices that women face. Before Women’s History Month was nationally established by Congress in 1987 during the Carter administration, there existed only International Working Women’s Day on March 8. International Working Women’s Day was intended to recognize the economic contributions that women make in society but that are all too often made invisible.
Rose-Marie Avin is the women’s studies program director and a professor of economics at UW-Eau Claire. Avin said every day should be a working women’s day, in tribute to women’s paid and unpaid work that serves as a backbone to society.
“I strongly believe that an economy is only as strong as the rights of the women who make up that economy. The problem with the majority of economies is that women’s work is invisible. Not only is it invisible, but it’s unpaid. Not only is it unpaid, but it’s underpaid if it’s paid at all.”
Referencing a 2016 article in The New York Times, Avin added that women’s median annual earnings are still 20 percent lower than men’s, a figure that is adjusted for variables including education levels, full-time and part-time status, and job experience. This wage disparity is further proven by observing what happens when women begin to occupy careers that were historically held by men.
“As women take over a male-dominated field, the pay drops. Women’s work is not valued. It’s not valued; it’s underpaid; it’s invisible,” Avin said. “When women take over a field, the pay drops because they don’t value a women’s work. But if it’s the other way around, when male take over fields that used to be dominated by women, the pay increases.”
Despite their integral contributions to societies worldwide, women have been systematically ignored in recorded history. Teresa O’Halloran, UW-Eau Claire assistant to the chancellor for affirmative action, acknowledged that some people believe that women have achieved equality with men and therefore consider it unnecessary for women’s history to be highlighted for an entire month. However, this point of view is misinformed.
When doing initial research for Women’s History Month, O’Halloran wanted to create a calendar of daily historical events in March that featured women. Instead of searching specifically for women’s history events, she said she naïvely typed “historical events in March” into her search bar.
“They had something for every day, and there was nothing that had anything to do with a woman,” O’Halloran said. “For 31 days. I was like, this is exactly an example of why we need Women’s History Month.”
However, what little historical representation of women is available proves that women’s liberation in the United States has always primarily benefited white women. For example, the racism that permeated the women’s suffrage movement impeded the enfranchisement of non-white women. The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1920 and is widely recognized as the pinnacle of the women’s suffrage movement, giving women the right to vote. But this narrative ignores the reality that many African American women faced obstacles when it came to voting, some of which were not rectified until the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed.
Mahaffy said that as a society, we will never reach a point where recognizing women’s history won’t require its own month.
“I think [Women’s History Month] is an opportunity to take a step back and honor all the hard work that our foremothers have actually put into this,” Mahaffy said, later adding, “Can we make sure that those lived experiences don’t go unnoticed or unrecognized or buried? Because those histories are important.”
Avin said that as long as all women, not just white women, can’t achieve equal pay with white men, Women’s History Month will be necessary. She doesn’t foresee that ever happening.
Featured photo caption: Artwork provided by Colectivo de Mujeres de Matagalpa, Nicaragua