In Women’s History Lies the World’s Future

In Women’s History Lies the World’s Future
By Commissioner Rupa G. Singh

Yes, March is National Women’s History Month. And yes, it provides some a feel-good opportunity to recognize women’s under-appreciated yet undeniable contributions to every imaginable human endeavor. But does it really, truly matter? And should it continue to matter after the month of March?

Perhaps the answer lies in the critical role that the status of women plays in the behavior and progress of a society, and in the catastrophic impact that holding women back has on everyone. Indeed, a diverse group of activists, academics, politicians, and organizations have repeatedly recognized—through the lens of their particular expertise—that women are the bedrock on whose shores communities prosper or fail.

Feminist leader, author, and activist Gloria Steinem has said that patriarchal gender roles introduce the very notion of inequality to children, shaping a worldview that allows them to later accept or reject as normal the idea that a person or a group can exert dominance over another, by violence if necessary, based on gender, race, sexuality, or other traits.[1] Whether or not one finds convincing this thought-provoking hypothesis, studies do show that one of the best predictors of a nation-state’s involvement in intra- and inter-national violence is the way in which its women are treated.[2] According to the World Economic Forum, a strong correlation exists between a country’s gender gap and its competitiveness—the wider the gap, the lower the nation’s long-term economic growth.[3] Closer to home, public health studies of the 50 American states show that women experience higher mortality and morbidity in states where they experience lower levels of political participation, economic autonomy, and social status, which, in turn, also had detrimental consequences for men’s health and children’s well-being.[4]

The profound link between women’s advancement and societal progress has been stated in more positive terms. The Fourth World Conference on Women emphasized that women’s literacy is key not only to advancing the status of women, but also to improving family health, raising the household income, and boosting a country’s national economy.[5] Studies suggest that when women’s representation in legislatures reaches 30 percent, policies and national budgets become more equitable.[6] Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus found through his microcredit program that women not only repay loans more often than men, but that they spend the money they control in ways that are more likely to benefit their families and their communities.[7] At the UN’s Millennium Summit in 2000, the international consensus was that the Millennium Development Goals--which provide a framework for sustaining development and eliminating poverty--could not be achieved without ensuring women’s equal access to education, work, and the political decision-making in each target country.[8] Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan declared in 2006 that there may be no policy at the international level that is more effective in promoting development, preventing conflict, and achieving peace “than the empowerment of women and girls.”[9] While celebrating International Women’s Day in 2013, President Barack Obama agreed, noting that empowering women is both right and smart because “[w]hen women succeed, nations are more safe, more secure, and more prosperous.”[10]

If women’s empowerment is the driving force of world progress, then understanding the issues that confront women is surely a necessary first step to addressing challenges in the economic, legal, political, and cultural arenas. Perhaps the most important thing men and women can do is to be aware of the issues women face because real change will involve men and women. And that’s where Women’s History Month comes in, providing one more platform to continue analyzing the women’s movement.

Notably, the proclamation of March as National Women’s History Month in the United States is itself an achievement worth celebrating, including because it involved organized advocacy, creative leadership, and resilience by many women, and a cadre of supportive men, including within a California County Commission. Since the early 1900s, an annual Women’s Day had begun to be observed in February or March in countries around the world to draw attention to the women’s labor movement. But, ever since the eve of World War I, in 1913, International Women’s Day was observed on March 8. Initially signifying women’s solidarity on issues of peace and progress, the UN officially declared March 8 as International Women’s Day in 1975, honoring women’s achievements and progress around the globe.

Nonetheless, women’s history failed to garner attention as a matter of importance in the public consciousness. To address this situation, none other than the Education Task Force of the Sonoma County Commission on the Status of Women initiated a “Women's History Week” celebration in 1978, choosing March 8 as the focal point of the observance. The following year, participants in the Women’s History Institute at Sarah Lawrence College decided to initiate similar celebrations nationally and to begin efforts to secure a “National Women's History Week.”

Beginning in 1980, the American President and Congressional leaders began to issue proclamations and resolutions declaring the week of March 8 as National Women’s History Week, but the date changed each year and the National Women’s History Project had to spearhead a new lobbying effort each year. In 1987, Congress finally declared March as National Women’s History Month in perpetuity. Shortly afterwards, the National Institute for Women of Color, founded in 1981, successfully had March 1 declared International Women of Color Day, using the parallel themes of women’s diversity and unity as a fitting day to start off Women’s History Month. Today, a special Presidential Proclamation is issued annually to mark Women’s History Month and to honor the extraordinary achievements of American women, including those in our midst in San Diego County.

The women, and women of color, of San Diego County that we celebrate in our postings in honor of Women’s History Month are strong, diverse, and dynamic—they work, support their families, send their children to school, and care for their communities. They find the courage and the inspiration to advocate for equality, justice, and inclusion, not only for women, children, and families, but for all marginalized and disenfranchised groups. They shape the worldview of men, the other half of the equation, by dispelling stereotypes and myths rooted in traditional gender roles that Steinem hypothesized as sowing the seeds of oppression.  

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, herself destined to be a historical figure as, among other things, the first Latina to serve on the High Court, wrote in her memoir, albeit in the context of researching her Puerto Rican heritage: “Every people has a past, but the dignity of a history comes when a community of scholars devotes itself to chronicling and studying that past.”[11] Women’s History Month, then, is that dignifying occasion, which annually chronicles the struggles and the achievements of the thousands of women on whose shoulders we stand so tall. And, if the research and the studies are to be believed, in studying women’s past and addressing the inequities they have historically faced lies the key to ensuring the future well-being of men, children, nation-states, and the world as we would want to know it.

So, beginning this March, and continuing every month after that, let us honor the special women in our lives and those who came before them—mothers, sisters, daughters, friends, mentors, colleagues, advocates, writers, activists, teachers,  crusaders, and leaders—and contemplate what lessons their stories and struggles hold to building a better future for all.

Rupa Singh is a business litigator and appellate lawyer who serves on the San Diego County Commission on the Status of Women. All views expressed herein are her own. Please visit  www.statusofwomensd.org to learn more about the women of San Diego County who have shaped our history and our future.

[1] Population Media Center: Acting for Change, Interview with Gloria Steinem (http://www.populationmedia.org/who/interviews/gloria-steinem, accessed March 13, 2013)

[2] The Woman Stats Project (http://womanstats.org/images/WomanStatsOverview.pdf, accessed March 13, 2013); Matthew Stearmer & Chad Emmett, “The Great Divide: Revealing Differences in the Islamic World Regarding the Status of Women and its Impact on International Peace” (http://www.womanstats.org/images/StearmerEmmettAPSA07.pdf, accessed March 13, 2013).

12.^ http://www.womanstats.org/images/StearmerEmmettAPSA07.pdf

[3] Ricardo Hausmann et al., The Global Gender Gap Report (http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GenderGap_Report_2012.pdf, accessed March 13, 2013); see also Riane Eisler et al., Women, Men, and the Global Quality of Life (The Center for Partnership Studies, 1995).

[4] Kawachi et al., “Women’s Status and the Health of Women and Men: A View from the States,” Soc. Sci. Med. 48(1):21-32 (Jan. 1999); Koenen et al. “Women’s Status and Child Well-Being: A State-Level Analysis,” Soc. Sci. Med. 63(12):2999-3012 (Dec. 2006).

[5] United Nations, Platform of Action, Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, China, September 4-15, 1995 (New York: UN, 1996) ¶ 69; United Nations, The Beijing Declaration (New York: UN, 1996) ¶¶ 13, 14, and 17.

[6] Women in the World Foundation, Politics & Leadership (http://womenintheworld.org/solutions/track/politics-and-leadership, accessed March 13, 2013).

[7] The Wall Street Journal, “Gender of Money” (http://blogs.wsj.com/ideas-market/2011/01/27/the-gender-of-money, accessed March 13, 2013).

[8]United Nations, "About the Goals" (www.developmentgoals.org/About_the_goals.htm, accessed March 13, 2013).

[9] “From its Headquarters to its furthest field work, UN marks Women's Day” (http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=17730&Cr=women&Cr1, accessed March 13, 2013)

[10] The White House Blog (http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2013/03/08/empowering-all-women-reach-the..., accessed March 13, 2013).

[11] Sonia Sotomayor, My Beloved World at 149 (Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2013).

1 Comment

Kudos to Commissioner Singh

Thank you for an erudite and timely piece on the recognition of women and Women's History Month.

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