As recent years have painfully indicated, inequality and sexism is still very much alive is still very much alive and prevalent in the United States (as well as the rest of the world). Recent research found that 42 percent of women still face gender discrimination at work. They also face the "motherhood penalty," in which women earn less money after they become mothers while men who become fathers actually earn more. These prevailing inequities are exactly why Women's History Month, which is recognized in March, matters so much. Sharing Women's History Month facts and the stories of historic women isn't trivial — it helps celebrate those women who paved the way, and those who are fighting for and representing women now.
In 2020, women lost a champion: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In her time as an attorney, she argued cases that continue to protect women from discrimination today. She also helped in the fight for equal pay and voted in favor of marriage equality.
She was also famous for her fiery spirit. In a 2015 interview with PBS, she said, "When I'm sometimes asked 'When will there be enough (women on the Supreme Court)?' and my answer is: 'When there are nine.' People are shocked. But there'd been nine men, and nobody's ever raised a question about that."
Women’s History Month isn’t perfect. Professor Kimberly A. Hamlin argued in a Washington Post op-ed that when men make history, it’s just called “history.” But when women make history, it’s “women’s history.” It’s a fair point to keep in mind, now and especially as the country moves forward to a more equitable tomorrow. The below facts about women’s history and contributions of women aren’t historic because they’re historic just for women — they’re historic for everyone.
Here are 21 facts about women’s history for Women’s History Month.
1. The first Women's History Day was held in 1909.
Feb. 28, 1909 marked the first Woman's History Day in New York City. It commemorated the one-year anniversary of the garment workers' strikes when 15,000 women marched through lower Manhattan. From 1909 to 1910, immigrant women who worked in garment factories held a strike to protest their working conditions. Most of them were teen girls who worked 12-hour days. In one factory, Triangle Shirtwaist Company, employees were paid only $15 a week. History.com describes it as a "true sweatshop." Young women worked in tight conditions at sewing machines, and the factories owners didn't keep the factory up to safety standards. In 1911, the factory burned and 145 workers were killed. It pushed lawmakers to finally pass legislation meant to protect factory workers.
2. The day became Women's History Week in 1978.
An education task force in Sonoma County, California, kicked off Women's History Week on March 8, International Women's Day in 1978, according to the National Women's History Alliance. They wanted to draw attention to the fact that women's history wasn't really included in K-12 school curriculums at the time.
3. In 1987, it became Women's History Month.
Women's organizations, including the National Women's History Alliance, campaigned yearly to recognize Women's History Week. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter declared the week of March 8 Women's History Week across the country. By 1986, 14 states had declared the entire month of March Women's History Month, according to the Alliance. The following year, in March of 1987, activists were successful: They lobbied Congress to declare March Women's History Month.
4. The president declares every March Women's History Month.
Since 1995, every president has issued a proclamation declaring March Women's History Month, usually with a statement about its importance.
5. Every Women's History Month has a theme.
The 2020 theme was “Valiant Women of the Vote,” according to the National Women's History Alliance. "In recognition of the centennial of the 19th Amendment, we will honor women from the original suffrage movement as well as 20th and 21st century women who have continued the struggle (fighting against poll taxes, literacy tests, voter roll purges, and other more contemporary forms of voter suppression) to ensure voting rights for all," the Alliance wrote in a statement. The Women's History Alliance is extending the 2020 theme since "most 2020 women’s suffrage centennial celebrations were curtailed." The 2021 theme is “Valiant Women of the Vote: Refusing to Be Silenced.” They will focus on women's political involvement and leadership.
6. Wyoming Territory was the first place to grant women the right to vote.
The Wyoming Territorial legislature gave every woman the right to vote in 1869, according to History.com. They elected the country's first female governor, Nellie Tayloe Ross, in 1924.
7. The 19th amendment didn't give all women the right to vote.
The 19th amendment, which granted women the right to vote, was signed into law on Aug. 26, 1920. But at the time, a number of other laws prohibited Native American women, Black women, Asian American women, and Latinx women from voting, among others. It wasn't until 1924 that Native women born in the United States were granted citizenship, allowing them to vote, according to PBS. But even after that, Native women and other women of color were prevented from voting by state laws such as poll taxes and literacy tests. It wasn't until 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, that discriminatory tactics such as literacy tests were outlawed, and all women could vote.
8. Claudette Colvin refused to give up her bus seat 9 months before Rosa Parks did.
Rosa Parks' contributions to the Civil Rights Movement are undeniable. But nine months before she refused to give up her seat on a bus for a white person in Montgomery, Alabama, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin did the same thing on the same bus system. But Colvin isn't widely recognized for her act. On March 2, 1955, the day she was arrested, she had been learning about Black history at her school. "My head was just too full of black history, you know, the oppression that we went through," she told NPR in 2009. "It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn't get up."
She was one of the plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the case that ended up overturning bus segregation laws in Montgomery.
9. Geraldyn "Jerrie" Cobb was the first woman to pass astronaut testing in 1961.
But she wasn't allowed to travel to space due to her gender. She testified on Capitol Hill in 1962, saying, “We women pilots who want to be part of the research and participation in space exploration are not trying to join a battle of the sexes,” according to the New York Times. “We see, only, a place in our nation’s space future without discrimination.”
But John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, opposed her. He said "it is just a fact" that women don't do certain things that men do, such as go to war and fly airplanes. “The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order,” he said.
10. About 20 years later, Sally Ride was the first woman in space — and the first gay astronaut.
Sally Ride became the first woman in space on June 18, 1983, when she flew on the space shuttle Challenger. It wasn't until her death that her obituary revealed she was gay; it referred to Tam O'Shaughnessy as her "partner of 27 years."
11. Women couldn't get credit cards on their own until 1974.
Until Congress passed the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, women couldn't get credit cards in their own name. Often, they had to bring a man along to cosign for them, according to Smithsonian magazine. Legal work done by late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg laid the foundation for the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, as well as many other basic rights women have today, including the ability to attend state-funded schools, protection from pregnancy discrimination at work, and the ability to serve on juries, according to USA Today.
12. Women make up 24 percent of Congress.
One-hundred and six women serve in the United States Congress out of 535 total members. That number is expected to jump to 141 after the 2020 election. Though the number of women representatives continues to rise, it's important to keep in mind that the United States population is 50.8 percent female, according to Census data.
13. Women outnumber men as they get older.
Women age 85 and older outnumber men by about 2 to 1, according to Census data from 2018. That's about 4.2 million women to 2.3 million men in the United States.
14. More women are earning college degrees than men.
Women earn about 57 percent of bachelor's degrees, according to 2018 data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
15. The gender pay gap still persists.
Despite the ever-growing number of women getting degrees, the gender pay gap has narrowed by less than half a cent per year since the Equal Pay Act was signed in 1963, according to Forbes.com. Between 2018 and 2019, no progress was made in closing the gap either, according to Census data released in September. Women who work full-time and year-round are paid about 82 cents for every dollar that a man makes, with that gap widening even more for women of color, according to the National Women's Law Center.
16. Women make up 14.4 percent of active duty military members.
17. Marie Curie was the first woman to receive two Nobel prizes.
Curie was a scientist whose research on radioactivity led her to discover two new elements. She also researched the atom, and her findings have been integral in scientific advancements related to atomic bombs and medicine, according to Scientific American. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, as well as the first person and only woman to win two Nobel Prizes. She won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1903 and the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1911.
18. Eleanor Roosevelt held all-woman press conferences.
The First Lady held the first press conference for women reporters on March 6, 1933. She would cover issues “of special interest and value to the women of the country,” according to the National Women's History Museum. Over the next 12 years she held 348 press conferences for women reporters.
19. Women make up 46.8 percent of the labor force.
And 57 percent of women age 16 and older work outside of the home, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2018, 49 percent of employed women in the United States said they are their family's primary breadwinner, according to a joint NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll.
20. Aretha Franklin was the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Known as the "Queen of Soul," Aretha Franklin was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. She's known for her rendition of Otis Redding's "RESPECT," and songs of her own like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." She was also involved in civil rights activism, and performed at President Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009, according to the New York Times.
21. Kamala Harris is the first woman and woman of color vice president.
After winning the 2020 presidential election with Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris is making history as the first woman, first Black woman, and first Asian American vice president in U.S. history.
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