I am often asked about women’s history, Well, that’s interesting, but who cares? Beyond the entertainment value in telling stories, Why does women’s history matter? What does it mean? What can it do for me? Why should I support it? Here are some answers to those questions, offered during National Women’s History Month (March), because women’s history not only matters it carries with it a contemporary urgency.
First, with rare exceptions, women’s history is simply not being taught below the self-selected college level. Especially in public schools, where testing and corporate operating models have gained so much ground in recent years, women’s history is considered superfluous. Girls and young women are not learning about the centuries-old, hard-won journey that brought us to where we are in 2012, nor do they know who provided leadership. One result of this omitted information is the loss of a collective female identity. Another is the loss of a powerful and endless source of pride, not to mention hundreds of role models who are inspiring examples of what can be achieved.
Too many of today’s girls and young women still struggle with low self esteem, the deeply rooted believe that they “can’t,” or that certain obstacles are insurmountable. Too many struggle with money problems, the inability to stand up to a boss or romantic partner, or to take better care of their physical and mental health. We women are still taught to put everyone else first, and then we beat ourselves up when things don’t go well for us. These behaviors have been centuries in the making, and studying women’s history shows women and girls that it is not their fault – yes, they are responsible for their lives, but the context in which they find themselves now is not their fault.
There is comfort in having this knowledge, and in having role models to study, emulate, and help us find a way to succeed. Girls and young women must be able to imagine a healthy, happy, productive future for themselves that does not depend on their attachment to a man. What’s more, finding ways to have girls and young women do their own research to uncover and tell the stories is incredibly empowering. Not only will their original work add to our collective body of knowledge, but they will likely adopt their subject as a friend and mentor, albeit historical, who will always be on their side.
Those of us women involved in women’s history are filled with gratitude for the ballots we cast, the education we have access to, the jobs we hold, the businesses we start, and the kinds of relationships we deserve. Truly, there is joy in “doing” women’s history.
Individuals, businesses, and organizations that support women’s history send a strong message to women and girls: You matter, and we care about you. We simply cannot leave women’s history to the schools because they are not and cannot do the job. This is not the fault of teachers, but of the “teaching to the test” requirements that are thrust upon them. Instead, we need a community-wide response from the private and public sectors to sustain women’s history.
From a strictly public relations and marketing standpoint, telling women and girls “We care about you” is an appealing message. Supporting women’s history boosts a business’s reputation, and allows its customers to view the business in a new way.
A business (for profit or nonprofit) or individual could sponsor a school project or guest speaker; find tour guides, researchers, or authors and back them; contact the cultural organizations in their community and ask how they could support an exhibit, lecture series, or special event; host an event at their place of business or local historical society, where guests enjoy a program and special discounts for women in honor of National Women’s History Month.
These are the kinds of creative (well-publicized) initiatives that will demonstrate leadership on women’s history in the communities a business serves or where an individual resides. Women customers, members, donors, colleagues, employees, and neighbors do pay attention -- for themselves and the girls and young women in their lives. Those girls and young women could be profoundly impacted in ways you may never know about, but take action anyway. Women’s history matters, and your good works will come back to you.
2012 © Bonnie Hurd Smith
Bonnie Hurd Smith, the President and CEO of History Smiths, is an expert on using history in new and innovative ways. She is a marketing, PR, event planning, and cultural tourism professional who also happens to be a respected historian (especially women's history), author, and public speaker.