Let’s rethink Women’s History Month

It’s Women’s History Month, the time of year to celebrate the achievements and history of notable girl bosses and trailblazing women. Celebratory traditions may include busting out our “nasty women rock!” crop tops and watching “Jennifer’s Body” over and over. There’s just one problem: In its attempt to celebrate women, Women’s History Month reduces women’s issues to a pitiful show of performative feminism.

Now, I will admit, it was a well-intended attempt — a noble one, even. Along with other months celebrating marginalized groups, Women’s History Month was a step in the right direction towards recognizing, reforming and redressing long-standing injustices. It feels good to take a break from the upward climb towards gender equality to admire how far we’ve come. But it has been more than 30 years since Congress officially recognized Women’s History Month, and in those 30 years, the significance of Women’s History Month hasn’t moved past the first “r:” Recognition.

We need to go a step further — several steps, in fact. Solely focusing on how far we’ve come and how much better it is to be a woman today compared to 50 years ago encourages people to think the problems have been solved. This sentiment pushes the idea that gender-based discrimination was a thing of our ugly past and we can finally wipe our hands clean, close the book and continue with our lives. There is a distorted attitude that the debt our society owes women, and every group “celebrated” by these special months, can be paid through a footnote on our calendars.

Women’s History Month often feels like a month dedicated to teaching men about how women deserve to be treated, which focuses less on women and their rights and more on making women’s history more palatable and convenient for men in an attempt to educate men about the gender inequalities we face. Women don’t need to hear how much less we get paid compared to men — we know. But, every March, I see the same Instagram social justice slideshows broadcasting the same general statistic of women earning 82 cents for every dollar a man doing the same work makes. Not to mention the fact that it’s even less if you’re not white. I find myself irked by the fact that it’s the men that need to hear all this, not me. It’s time that women stop bearing the burden of ending gender-based discrimination.

Curriculum surrounding Women’s History Month tends to commoditize women’s productivity. It pushes the narrative that women are only valuable when they achieve extraordinarily difficult things such as flying across the planet solo or burning at the stake in the name of French liberation. And while the fact that more women are entering male-dominated fields is a sign of great progress, it comes at the continued devaluation of traditionally female-dominated fields such as nursing, childcare and elementary teaching. What about ordinary women? What about the women who bolstered our coronavirus relief effort and childcare sectors during the pandemic?

Somewhere along the way, Women’s History Month became less about exposing young girls to barrier-breaking role models and more about memorizing the names of famous feminists. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem — we all know their names, but lack a deep understanding of how exactly they raised and shaped early feminist movements. 

That’s not to mention another problem with women’s history curriculum: It focuses on the experiences and contributions of white, cisgender women and not enough on marginalized groups. In fact, it wasn’t until I became a student at USC that I was first exposed to the works of Bell Hooks, Roxane Gay and Angela Davis.

We must recognize that Black women fought to pass the Civil Rights Act and continue to lead the Black Lives Matter movement. Native American women have been fighting for conservation and climate justice for generations. Women of the labor movement are fighting for fair wages, benefits and conditions. LGBTQ+ women are fighting to secure the rights, identities and livelihoods of trans women and kids. 

When you look at it this way, not only do we see that women’s history goes so much deeper than fighting for suffrage or equal pay for white women, but that it also becomes harder to draw a line between what’s considered “women’s history” and what’s regular history. That’s the way it should be. Women’s history is world history and must be integrated into the curriculum as such.

When a man goes into space, that’s history. When Sally Ride, a respected physicist and astronaut, becomes the first woman to go into space, that’s women’s history. By isolating the recognition of women’s history to a single month of the year and by restricting women’s history to a single section or paragraph of our history textbooks, we’re reducing women to a subset of history, rather than an integral part of it. As a matter of fact, the mere existence of Women’s History Month is an implicit admission that we don’t do enough to support women throughout the other 11 months of the year. 

Women’s History Month ought to be an opportunity to not just recognize women’s struggles and achievements but also actively challenge the culture and systems that make such achievements a struggle in the first place.