Monday, March 28, 2011

"Women's History Month"

The month of March is nearly over, and at last I sit down to blog. March is "Women's History Month," and as a woman who likes to take note of other women's accomplishments -- not because they do me any credit, but because they enhance my sense of possibility -- I feel obliged to devote my March blog to it.

Politically incorrect though it may be, I have found myself wondering on occasion why there should be a Women's History Month at all. Why do we have to set aside a special time, apart from all others, to focus on the marks that various strong, wise, and gifted women have left on history? If their accomplishments are of sufficient substance, surely we would take notice of them at all times of the year, and their names would be spoken, without suspicion of "tokenism," alongside the male statesmen, soldiers, poets, artists, and philosophers who have helped shape our world. Mark Twain famously disliked Jane Austen, but her gift for wry social commentary equals his. Sojourner Truth's cry against injustice, "Ain't I a Woman?" might not be as polished as Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream," but it reverberates with equal truth. Setting aside a special month to honor women in history strikes me as a bit like setting aside a special Oscar category for Best Animated Feature, so that brilliant and moving animated films don't stand any real chance of winning Best Picture -- it's a way of saying, "You're not good enough to play with the Big Boys."

Yet when I asked my mother why we have a Women's History Month, she set me straight, as she so often does.
Women's History Month exists to honor women who aren't Joan of Arc or Elizabeth I or Eleanor Roosevelt, women whose hard work and initiative and intelligence may have gone unnoticed in the storming pageant that is History. Women whose contributions might have fallen through the cracks, not because they weren't important enough but just because we couldn't be bothered to notice. Women like Ada Augusta Lovelace, for instance. I'm able to type this blog on this computer because of the work of Ada Augusta Lovelace, a mathematician who, along with Charles Babbage, created an early 19th century computer prototype. Women like Fanny Hensel and Clara Schumann, who composed music even though their society urged them to be content with performing it, like "proper ladies." Women like Maya Lin, whose design for the Vietnam War Memorial stirred controversy, but whose finished work now stirs hearts.

And then there are those women whose names are utterly forgotten, or whose historical identity has been swallowed up by some great man to whom they were connected, so that if we remember them at all, it's as "Wife of ____" or "Daughter of _____". Women's History Month is a time for us to acknowledge that they, too, were thinkers, readers, innovators, and explorers, though they may have chosen a private rather than a public forum for their talents. As we remember them, we understand that the truest, most lasting changes take place not on the battlefield or on the floor of the House or Senate, but in the hearts and minds of a nation's people. These are the changes over which these wise unsung women preside.

So yes, Mom, Women's History Month does serve a vital purpose, not just to cast a spotlight on the wide variety of contributions women have made and continue to make in both the public and private arena, but to enhance our understanding of history itself, and all that it encompasses.

Yet still, I don't need to set aside a special month to focus on the women in history who have meant the most to me, whose voices have echoed over the centuries to put my own thoughts and feelings into clear, beautiful words.
Emily Dickinson:
"Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness is;
'Tis the majority."
Charlotte Bronte:
"It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it... Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do."

I'll let Jane Eyre have the last word.