Happy Women’s History Month! Let’s start off again with some fast facts about the who, what, where, when, why, and how of celebrating the accomplishments of women.
In a similar vein to Black History Month, Women’s History Month actually started in 1978 as Women’s History Week. It began as a local celebration in Santa Rosa, California planned and executed by the Education Task Force of the Sonoma County Commission on the Status of Women.
- Women’s History Week was selected to correspond with International Women’s Day, celebrated annually on March 8th. International Women’s Day was first introduced at the second International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen in 1910 but was not honored for the first time until 1911. The proposed purpose of IWD was “that every year in every country there should be a celebration on the same day […] to press for their demands.”
- The energy surrounding the recognition of women’s contributions in the United States was related, in part, to working conditions; the Socialist Party of America were the organizers that first introduced National Women’s Day domestically in 1909. This time period is heavily influenced by calls for labor legislation following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and the Bread and Roses campaign.
- After coordinated lobbying, led by the National Women’s History Project (now the National Women’s History Alliance,) President Jimmy Carter was the first President to issue a Proclamation in 1980 declaring the week of March 8th as National Women’s History Week.
- In 1987, Congress passed Public Law 100-9, which designated March officially as Women’s History Month; the subsequent years saw Congress continuing to pass resolutions requesting and authorizing these proclamations. It took until 1995 for there to be consistent annual designations by each sitting President.
- Domestically, there have been annual themes for Women’s History Month since at least 2006; past themes have included ’Women: Builders of Communities and Dreams,’ (2006,) ‘Women Taking the Lead to Save Our Planet’ (2009,) ‘Celebrating Women of Character, Courage, and Commitment’ (2014.) The theme for 2022 is ‘Women Providing Healing, Promoting Hope.’
Whether we want to see it or acknowledge it, we are steeped in gendered stereotypes. So often when we think about pushing back on rigid gender stereotypes, we focus on the visible signifiers of gender – from colors to careers, we continue to become more socially conscious of how gender shapes our perspective. However, one of the ways we often neglect to challenge ourselves is in the day-to-day use of gendered language.
It’s important to acknowledge that the English language is not quite as grammatically gendered as languages like Spanish or French, which have rules related to the masculine and feminine nature of nouns. The concept of ‘gendered language’ refers to a language that has a bias towards a particular sex or gender. And this linguistic bias has a real impact – a 2011 study of 111 countries suggested countries where gendered languages are spoken have “less gender equality compared to countries with other grammatical gender systems.”
Socially, American English has always relied on masculinity as the baseline in referring to people. Written at a time when only white men with means were considered people, even our most foundational documents need updating. As human beings, though, we have always found unique ways to honor and acknowledge our personhood, and our gender, through language.
Consider the use of ‘woman,’ ‘womyn,’ and ‘womxn’ to refer to adult female people. First seen in print at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, the use of the ‘y’ takes the word ‘men’ out of ‘women,’ and challenges the centering of maleness as the established norm. Not without controversy, ‘womyn,’ as used by the Festival became synonymous with transphobia, as only cisgender women were permitted to attend. Similarly, the use of the word ‘womxn,’ was coined to signal the inclusion of those who have “traditionally been excluded from white feminist discourse,” including Black women and women of color, transwomen, and nonbinary people. However, the use of ‘womxn’ can still be othering when used to differentiate between groups.
So why does all that matter and what does it have to do with Women’s History Month? First and foremost, it matters because language always matters, and words always mean things. The use of words like ‘womxn’ and ‘womyn’ were efforts to de-center maleness as the norm. Though there is always discourse about language, we can understand this intentional shift; when we default to masculinity in language, we demonstrate prioritization of men and place women and other gender diverse people as secondary. During a month where we are simultaneously recognizing the contributions of women and the urgency for gender equity, language seems like a perfectly reasonable place to start.
Here are 5 small shifts to consider:
- Find neutral alternatives to needlessly gendered words. These are easy – ‘fireman’ becomes ‘firefighter,’ ‘waitress’ becomes ‘server,’ ‘man the table’ becomes ‘staff the table.’
- Practice using the gender neutral they – and yes, it is completely grammatically acceptable. ‘Someone left their phone here’ or ‘the server said they would be right with us’
- Shift away from binary language. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ in a formal sense can become ‘esteemed guests,’ while ‘boys and girls’ can become ‘kids’ or ‘students.’
- Recognize that ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ is one way to show respect, but not the only way. Saying ‘excuse me, please’ is just as polite and respectful as ‘excuse me, ma’am.’
- Stop referring to groups of people as ‘guys’ – especially if it’s a mixed gender group. Find your favorite. I prefer referring to groups of people as ‘friends’ or ‘humans,’ but a simple ‘everyone’ will usually work as well.
Happy Women’s History Month!