It’s Women’s History Month and every year around this time, I receive an email that a male colleague sends to all his female co-workers and friends marking the occasion. The messages are unfailingly celebratory of women as great mothers, friends, partners, etc.
It’s a nice thing to do, but it is also indicative of the fact that we’ve lost sight of the purpose of Women’s History Month, which should be about remembering, honoring and supporting the variety of social justice struggles in which women are involved.
In short, we need to remember and support female activists more.
Take as an example the origin of International Women’s Day, which happens during Women’s History Month. It is in fact a remembrance of the struggles of female workers in the U.S. It was first observed by the Socialist Party of America in honor of the 1908 strike of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, one of the largest labor unions in the United States and one of the first to have a primarily female membership.
It played a key role in the labor history of the 1920s and 1930s. Subsequent celebrations of the day in Europe were held to build support for women’s right to vote, to hold public office and to work. It was also used to march for peace and protest war during the two world wars.
At the outset then, the occasion was used to support women’s activism on behalf of gender equality, but also their protest against continuing problems such as labor discrimination and militarism. Those struggles were not without risk, as the female activists at the forefront of struggles for equal suffrage for white women and African American women fighting against lynching in the U.S. knew too well. Their efforts were often met with violence and repression.
It is true to this day. This year has become a sad reminder of the risks and dangers that female activists around the world face as they struggle to make it a better place. For example, Honduran human rights activist Berta Cáceres, a leading voice in indigenous and environmental struggles in her country, was murdered recently in her home a day before what would have been her 45th birthday.
Cáceres, who was a member of the Lenca indigenous people and a co-founder of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, received the world’s leading environmental award, the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015 for her opposition to one of Central America’s biggest hydropower projects. Her work was dangerous. As an activist in the country with one of the highest murder rates in the world, Cáceres received multiple death threats, but she would not stop her work.
Cáceres’ example hits close to home for me as a fellow Central American, and because I was lucky enough to meet her and be inspired by her. We all need to honor the activism of women like her. We need to remember and support all the struggles in which women are involved.
This Women’s History Month, we don’t just want poems about how fabulous women are, or celebrations of historical firsts. Instead, we need to learn about and support female activists of the past and present. We need to find new and better ways to honor their struggles by supporting the causes for which they dedicated their lives.
Teachers can teach their students about brave anti-lynching activists such as Ida B. Wells, or the suffragettes who staged hunger strikes to gain the vote for white women in the U.S. Parents can watch films about female activists, such as “Iron Jawed Angels,” with their children, or take them to vote, or to a protest against the poisoning of drinking water, or to a march against police violence.
We need to make sure Women’s History Month is not just about the past, but also the present of women’s activism.
Juliet Hooker is a core faculty member in the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies and an associate professor of government and African and African diaspora studies at The University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of “Race and the Politics of Solidarity” and is a Public Voices Fellow.
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