I’ve wondered about the origins of Women’s History Month. Many people, including me, formally educated in the late-1960s to mid-1970s, were not exposed to women’s history courses—no such field of academics existed. While researching background for this post, I learned from Wikipedia that “the first accredited women’s studies course in the U.S. was held in 1969 at Cornell University,” and “the first women’s studies program in the United States was established in 1970 at San Diego State College (now San Diego State University).”
Women’s History Month Primer
Women’s History month had its origins as Women’s History Week, which later evolved into the full month of acknowledging women’s historical contributions to society in every aspect of life: medicine and science, the arts, education, inventive genius, government, social activism, and much more. And yet, the passage of an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution that would explicitly protect women’s rights and prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex has yet to see the light of day. The fight for equal rights for women began in 1923 when equal rights advocate Alice Stokes Paul (1885–1977), a suffragist, feminist, and women’s rights advocate, became a major influence leading to the introduction of the proposed amendment in Congress. One of my favorite quotations attributed to Ms. Paul is “There’s nothing complicated about ordinary equality.” There’s profound genius in these six simple words.
Since its introduction, the amendment has had a circuitous trail of ratification derailment stalling its passage. It has come just short of receiving the number of ratifying states (three-fourths or thirty-eight of fifty) necessary to amend the Constitution. On May 30, 2018, Illinois became the thirty-seventh state to ratify the ERA.
Throughout our history, women have dedicated their lives to achieving equal rights for all people in the United States. For over a century, women’s contributions to American society have set the stage for a national celebration of women. According to the Women’s History Month website, in 1981, “Congress passed Pub. L. 97-28, a law that authorized the president to proclaim the week beginning March 7, 1982, as ‘Women’s History Week.’” As a result, on February 26, 1982, President Ronald Reagan issued Proclamation 4903 and declared
Now, Therefore, I, Ronald Reagan, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim the week beginning March 7, 1982, as Women’s History Week. Recognizing that the many contributions of American women have at times been overlooked in the annals of American history, I encourage all citizens to observe this important week by participating in appropriate ceremonies and activities planned by individuals, governmental agencies, and private institutions and associations throughout the country.
Between 1988 and 1994, Congress passed additional resolutions requesting and authorizing the president to proclaim March of each year as Women’s History Month. Since 1995, presidents Clinton, G. W. Bush, and Obama have issued a series of annual proclamations designating the month of March as Women’s History Month. On March 1, 2019, Donald Trump issued his presidential Women’s History Month proclamation with this opening statement: “During Women’s History Month, we celebrate the countless women whose courage and resolve have contributed to the character and success of our Nation and the entire world.”
Women’s Long History of Social Activism Reform
It’s impossible to assign credit to all the women who have fought for social change, including for the rights of incarcerated women and men, without developing tomes of information. In a previous post entitled Meet Dorothea Dix: Early Advocate for Mentally Ill Prisoners, I wrote about how Dix (1802–1887)
transformed from a teacher of students to a social reformer dedicated to changing conditions for people who could not help themselves. She was a champion for the mentally ill and the imprisoned, and her work continued in later years when she became a superintendent of nurses during the Civil War.
Instead of highlighting the lifelong work of other women who have fought to improve the lot of women incarcerated in the shadows of society, I will draw attention to an organization established in 1845 as an example. Established by women, the Women’s Prison Association (WPA) continues to be dedicated solely to aiding women involved in the criminal justice system.
Meet the WPA
The function of WPA is to work with women throughout their involvement with the criminal justice system. Its vision statement addresses its belief that people can change:
The Women’s Prison Association envisions a community where our reliance on incarceration as the default response to crime has been replaced by constructive, community-driven and -enhancing responses. Critical to our vision of a world with fewer jails and prisons is the belief that all human beings have the capacity for change and that every individual can be accountable for her actions and the results. Believing that no person should be defined solely by her bad acts, we exist to support women at any stage of criminal justice involvement so that they can imagine and realize law-abiding, self-directed and satisfying lives in the community.
This remarkably humane perspective on giving women with deep real-life problems a second chance is refreshing—straight from 1845. Located in New York City, WPA addresses social factors women face when returning from jails and prisons and difficulties often related to poverty or a history of abuse, trauma, addiction, or mental health issues. WPA is rightfully proud of being the nation’s first organization dedicated solely to working with women—and their families—involved with the criminal justice system. Per the WPA website, WPA doesn’t “believe in ‘one size fits all’ strategies toward such reforms. Instead, [it] utilize[s] evidence-based, gender-specific tools designed to address the many circumstances that lead women into the criminal system.” WPA takes a whole-person approach and provides “tailored services to women and their families before, during, after, and even instead of incarceration.” A large part of WPA’s commitment is to work toward alternative means of incarceration.
According to WPA’s site, “Women have more needs reentering the community after prison. They experience more poverty, lower employment rates, and have fewer safe housing options than men immediately after incarceration.” WPA uses the psychometric findings of the Women’s Risk Needs Assessment (WRNA), developed by the University of Cincinnati as a “risk/need assessment [instrument] for adult, women offenders.” The WRNA is an evidence-based, gender-specific assessment tool used in corrections to determine a woman’s likelihood of returning to jail or prison, and it identifies the greatest risk factors in her life that lead her to commit crime. Properly trained mental health professionals read and interpret the results of the WRNA.
Women’s History Month is the government’s nod of acknowledgment to the female force in this country who have yet to be fully accepted as foundational to our society. With the ERA on the brink of ratification as an amendment to the Constitution, getting the final vote necessary for amending federal law should be a perfunctory endeavor. The fact it has taken from 1972 for some state legislators to get on board is a symptom of a sickness diagnosable as geography-based misogyny.
Women have fervently taken up the cause for prisoners’ rights. While there are too many women to credit in this post, an organization such as WPA is an example of women working together to put a humane face on the problems unique to women reentering the free world. Presidents’ orders that acknowledge women with a history month are important steps for truthful women’s equality.
For more on this subject, see Piper Kerman’s August 13, 2013 Op-Ed in the New York Times: For Women, a Second Sentence.
Your comments are always welcome.
Image courtesy of 123rf.com
 The ERA was passed by Congress on March 22, 1972 and sent to the states for ratification.