Some History Behind Women’s History Month

I’ve always liked the saying, “Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History.” It’s been in my mind as we observe Women’s History Month during the month of March.

The quote has been attributed to everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Eleanor Roosevelt, but its origin comes from an academic paper by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who in 1976 was a student at the University of New Hampshire. Her focus was on the history of early American women who were not featured in history books of the past. Her paper began,

Cotton Mather called them “The Hidden Ones.” They never preached or sat in a deacon’s bench. Nor did they vote or attend Harvard. Neither, because they were virtuous women, did they question God or the magistrates. They prayed secretly, read the Bible through at least once a year, and went to hear the minister preach even when it snowed. Hoping for an eternal crown, they never asked to be remembered on earth. And they haven’t been. Well-behaved women seldom make history; against Antinomians and witches, these pious matrons have had little chance at all.

By 2007 her phrase became what now would be called a “meme,” and in a newspaper interview, Ulrich said,

It was a weird escape into popular culture. I got constant e-mails about it, and I thought it was humorous. Then I started looking at where it was coming from. Once I turned up as a character in a novel — and a tennis star from India wore the T-shirt at Wimbledon. It seemed like a teaching moment — and so I wrote a book using the title.

Who are some other history-making women who were unafraid to rock the boat? Many of them were instrumental to the growth and success of the National Organization for Women. Here’s a timeline that is worth remembering with pride as we celebrate Women’s History Month. For the full version of the NOW timeline, click here.

1966 (June) National Organization for Women (NOW) is established by a group of women, including Betty Friedan and Pauli Murray, who meet to discuss alternative action strategies during the Third Annual Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women in Washington, D.C. Friedan famously writes the acronym NOW on a paper napkin.

1967 At its second national conference, NOW adopts passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), the repeal of all abortion laws, and publicly-funded child care among its goals in a “Bill of Rights for Women.” NOW is the first national organization to endorse the legalization of abortion.

1968 In November, NOW member Shirley Chisholm becomes the first Black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

1969 In March, NOW attorney Sylvia Roberts (later NOW’s Southern Regional Director, from Baton Rouge, LA) argues the first sex discrimination case appealed under Title VII. Roberts argues in the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals that it was sex discrimination for Lorena Weeks, a secretary, to be restricted from higher-paying employment as a “switchman” because of a 30-pound lifting limit. Weeks entered the courtroom with her typewriter, which she was regularly required to lift and move — yes, it weighed more than 30 pounds. The court later rules in Weeks v. Southern Bell that the weight limitation rule for women violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

1970-71 NOW campaigns for the Comprehensive Child Care Act, sponsored in the Senate by Walter Mondale and Jacob Javits, and in the House by Shirley Chisholm and Bella Abzug; NOW lobbies the comprehensive legislation through both houses of Congress, but it is vetoed by President Richard Nixon, who calls it the “Sovietization of American children.”

1977 At the historic Houston Women’s Conference, led by NOW President Eleanor Smeal, activists pass controversial lesbian rights plank despite opposition by conference organizers. Betty Friedan speaks in favor of the plank. The conference’s final Plan of Action echoes NOW’s “Bill of Rights” proposed a decade earlier.

1981 Sandra Day O’Connor is appointed to the US Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan. NOW President Eleanor Smeal testifies in favor of her appointment.

1983 NOW activists defeat almost all anti-abortion bills introduced in state legislatures this year. The U.S. Supreme Court rules 6-3 that government can not interfere with women’s abortion rights unless it is clearly justified by “accepted medical practice.”

1984 NOW co-sponsors the National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights in San Francisco, whose platform includes: (1) passage of the Equal Rights Amendment; and (2) the right of women, regardless of sexual orientation or economic status to choose if and when to bear children, as well as the right to safe, legal, and accessible abortion with freedom from forced sterilization.

1989 NOW’s 2nd March for Women’s Lives brings a record-setting 500,000 to the National Mall to influence the Supreme Court considering a reversal of Roe v Wade.

1992 NOW’s 3rd March for Women’s Lives sets a record for the largest civil rights demonstration in the US to date, with 750,000 marching. NOW chapters and National NOW participate in efforts throughout the year to defend clinics. As a commencement to a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience, NOW and Feminist Majority organize illegal speak-out in front of the White House protesting the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Casey v. Planned Parenthood.

1998 After 12 years of litigation, NOW wins a unanimous jury verdict against Joseph Scheidler, Operation Rescue and others under RICO (anti-racketeering law); a nationwide injunction against violence at abortion clinics follows.

2002 – 2006 NOW’s Women Friendly Workplace Campaign names Wal-Mart a Merchant of Shame because of their sex discrimination policies in hiring, pay and promotions. NOW chapters picket local stores for four years.

2004 NOW is a lead organizer of the massive March for Women’s Lives in Washington, DC. With 1.15 million marchers, it was the largest civil rights march in US history.

2004 NOW launches a campaign to educate legislators and the public on marriage rights for same-sex couples before the 2004 election; The NOW Political Action Committee develops new criteria for candidate endorsements including support for full marriage rights for LGBT people. NOW also begins a full marriage equality litigation campaign assisting lawyers and signing amicus briefs that support full civil marriage equality at the state level.

2007-2008 NOW’s Political Action Committee endorses Hillary Rodham Clinton’s bid for the presidency; despite ultimately losing the Democratic Party nomination to Barack Obama, Hillary inspired millions of women and girls, brought more women in to political participation, and went on to serve as Secretary of State where she made well-being of women and girls central to the State Department’s work. In the general election, NOW PAC endorses the historic bid of Barack Obama, who became the first African-American president, and whose first act as president was to sign the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law.

2009-2010 NOW and its allies work to defeat amendments to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that would have prevented private health insurers from covering abortion care and made it all but impossible for low-income women to have access to safe, legal, medically appropriate abortions. The ultimate compromise in the ACA opens the door for states to impose draconian restrictions on women’s ability to get insurance coverage for abortions.

2011-2013 NOW condemns the Supreme Court’s ruling in Wal-Mart v. Dukes that despite overwhelming evidence of the giant retailer’s intentional gender- and race-based discrimination against women employees, the company is too big to sue; the court invalidates the nationwide class action against Wal-mart but leaves the door open for a series of small, state or regionally-based class actions. NOW chapters around the country participate in social media campaigns and on-the-ground pickets of Wal-Mart stores in solidarity with striking employees.

2012 NOW and the NOW Political Action Committee work to mobilize women voters and, despite right wing billionaires spending hundreds of millions to elect right-wing candidates, President Obama (again endorsed by NOW PAC) wins re-election. NOW PAC-endorsed candidate Tammy Baldwin is elected the first openly lesbian member of the U.S. Senate, and NOW PAC-endorsed candidate Elizabeth Warren, architect of the Consumer Finance Protection Board, is also elected to the Senate. For the first time, women hold 20 seats in the U.S. Senate.

2012-2013 NOW and NOW Foundation file an amicus brief challenging the constitutionality of California’s anti-marriage equality Proposition 8, and sign on to briefs filed by allies in a constitutional challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The Supreme Court rules a key section of DOMA unconstitutional, and also strikes down California’s Proposition 8.

2013 In solidarity with immigrant women seeking common-sense immigration reform that serves the needs of immigrant women, NOW President Terry O’Neill joins in a nonviolent direct action blocking traffic on Capitol Hill resulting in the arrest of 115 protesting women.

I’m proud of the historic contributions made to women’s history by NOW and NOW supporters. What milestones in women’s history will you be thinking about this month?

Originally Published on Terry O’Neill’s Huffington Post blog on 03/11/2014

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