Why We Celebrate Women's History Month

How Did March Come to Be Women's History Month?

U.S. Supreme Court justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg
U.S. Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg honored for Women's History Month, 2015. Allison Shelley/Getty Images

Women’s History Month is a legally declared international celebration honoring the contributions of women to history, culture, and society. Since 1987, it has been observed annually in March in the United States.

As declared annually by a presidential proclamation, Women’s History Month in the United States is dedicated to reflecting on the numerous but often-overlooked contributions of women such as Abigail Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, and Rosa Parks to American history from independence to the present day.

Key Takeaways: Women's History Month

  • Women’s History Month is an annual celebration honoring the contributions of women to American history, culture, and society.
  • Women’s History Month is observed annually during March to coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8.
  • Women’s History Month grew out of a Women’s History Week celebrated in Sonoma County, California, in 1978.
  • In 1980, President Jimmy Carter proclaimed the week of March 8th, 1980 as the first National Women’s History Week.
  • Women’s History Week was expanded to Women’s History Month by the U.S. Congress in 1987.

Started as Women's History Week

In 1978, nine years before it became a month-long observation, Sonoma County, California, observed a Women’s History Week. While celebrating the achievements of women may seem to be an obvious concept today, in 1978, the organizers of Women’s History Week saw it as a way of rewriting widely taught versions of American history that largely ignored the contributions of women.

In demonstrating the impact of Women’s History Month, the National Women’s History Alliance points to a 50-year progress report on the progress of women in the United States issued by the White House in March 2011 to coincide with Women's History Month. The report found that younger women are now more likely to hold college degrees than their male counterparts and that the number of men and women in the American workforce had nearly equalized.

Once Marginalized, Movement Grows in Popularity

In the 1970s, women’s history remained rarely covered or even discussed topic in the K-12 curriculum of U.S. schools. Hoping to rectify this situation, the Education Task Force of the Sonoma County (California) Commission on the Status of Women initiated a “Women’s History Week” celebration for 1978. The Taskforce chose the week of March 8 to correspond with that year’s observance of International Women’s Day

During that first Women’s History Week in 1978, hundreds of students competed in an essay contest on the topic of “Real Woman,” presentations were made at dozens of schools, and a parade with floats and marching bands was held in downtown Santa Rosa, California. 

As the movement grew in popularity, other communities across the country held their own Women’s History Week celebrations in 1979. In early 1980, a collaboration of women’s advocacy groups, historians, and scholars led by the National Women’s History Project—now the National Women's History Alliance—urged the U.S. Congress to give the event national recognition. In Congress, Democratic U.S. Representative Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah co-sponsored a successful congressional resolution declaring a National Women’s History Week to be observed the same year. Their sponsorship of the legislation in a Congress deeply divided along party lines demonstrated strong bipartisan support for the recognition of the achievements of American women.

President Jimmy Carter's 1980 Proclamation

On February 28, 1980, President Jimmy Carter issued a Presidential Proclamation declaring the week of March 8th, 1980 as the first National Women’s History Week. President Carter’s proclamation read in part:

“From the first settlers who came to our shores, from the first American Indian families who befriended them, men and women have worked together to build this Nation. Too often, the women were unsung and sometimes their contributions went unnoticed.”

Thought always in March, the exact dates of Women’s History Week changed every year, and every year, a new lobbying effort in Congress was needed. This annual confusion and complication led women’s groups to push for the annual designation of the entire month of March as Women’s History Month.

Between 1980 and 1986, state-after-state began holding Women’s History Month observances. In 1987, at the request of the National Women's History Project, the U.S. Congress, again with bipartisan support, voted to declare the entire month of March as National Women’s History Month in perpetuity. Between 1988 and 1994, Congress passed resolutions authorizing the president to proclaim March of each year as Women’s History Month.

Since 1995, every U.S. president has issued annual proclamations designating the month of March as “Women’s History Month.” The proclamations call for all Americans to celebrate the past and ongoing contributions of women to the United States.

International Women’s Day

First celebrated on March 19, 1911, International Women’s Day was inspired by National Women’s Day organized by the Socialist Party of America and observed on February 28, 1909, in New York City. That event honored the New York garment worker’s strike, in which thousands of women marched from Manhattan to Union Square demanding equal pay and safer working conditions. By 1911, Women’s Day had grown into an international observance that spread through Europe as an outgrowth of the socialist movement. In 1913, the permanent date for the observation of International Women’s Day was changed to March 8.

On March 25, 1911, less than a week after the first International Women’s Day, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire killed 146 people, mostly young women, in New York City. The disaster led to new laws ensuring better industrial working conditions. The memory of those who died is still regularly invoked as part of International Women's Day ceremonies.

Annual Themes Highlight the Event

Since 1987, the National Women's History Project has established an annual theme for observances of Women’s History Month. A few notable examples of past themes include, “Generations of Courage, Compassion, and Conviction,” in 1987; “Writing Women Back into History,” in 2010; “Nevertheless, She Persisted: Honoring Women Who Fight All Forms of Discrimination against Women,” in 2018; and “Valiant Women of the Vote,” in 2020 honoring “the brave women who fought to win suffrage rights for women, and for the women who continue to fight for the voting rights of others.”

From the White House to towns, cities, and schools and colleges across the nation, the annual Women’s History Month theme is celebrated with speeches, parades, roundtable discussions, and presentations.

In 2013, for example, the White House observed Women’s History Month celebrating women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics by hosting a group of high school students participating in a conversation with a mentoring panel of luminaries from a diverse range of fields. Following the panel discussion, President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a reception for the participants in the East Room of the White House.

Michelle Obama visits DC-area school as part of Women's History Month
Michelle Obama visits DC-area school as part of Women's History Month. Alex Wong/Getty Images

“When I look around this room, it is hard to believe that 100 years ago this month, thousands of women were marching right outside this house demanding one of our most fundamental right: the right to vote, to have a say in our democracy,” said President Obama. “And today, a century later, its rooms are full of accomplished women who have overcome discrimination, shattered glass ceilings, and become outstanding role models for all of our sons and daughters.”

President Obama speaks at Women's History Month reception at the White House
President Obama speaks at Women's History Month reception at the White House. Alex Wong/Getty Images

To celebrate the 2020 Women’s History Month theme, “Valiant Women of the Vote,” the city of Philadelphia honored the 100th anniversary of women earning the right to vote. By temporarily changing the city’s nickname of “The City of Brotherly Love” to “The City of Sisterly Love,” Philadelphia recognized women’s suffrage in 1920 and drew attention to the fact that women of color were not guaranteed the right to vote until passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Rather than concluding at the end of March, Philadelphia’s celebrations of women’s suffrage were scheduled to continue throughout the year.

Impact of Women’s History Month

The years since the first Women’s History Week and Women’s History Month celebrations have seen significant milestones in the advancement of the rights and equality of women in the United States.

For example, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 prohibited employment discrimination against pregnant women. In 1980, Paula Hawkins of Florida became the first woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate without following her husband or father in the position, and in 1981, Sandra Day O'Connor became the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2009, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act gave pay discrimination victims, usually women, the right to file complaints against their employer with the government.

In 2016, Hilary Clinton secured the Democratic presidential nomination, becoming the first U.S. woman to lead the ticket of a major political party; and in 2020, a record number of women served in the U.S. Congress, including 105 in the House and 21 in the Senate.

On March 11, 2009, President Obama marked Women’s History Month by signing an executive order creating the White House Council on Women and Girls requiring all federal agencies to account for the needs of women and girls in the policies and programs they create, and in the legislation they support. In signing the order, the President stressed that the true purpose of the government remains, as it was in 1789, “to ensure that in America, all things are still possible for all people.”

Updated by Robert Longley

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Why We Celebrate Women's History Month." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/womens-history-month-3530805. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2023, April 5). Why We Celebrate Women's History Month. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/womens-history-month-3530805 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Why We Celebrate Women's History Month." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/womens-history-month-3530805 (accessed May 30, 2023).