The 5 Q's: Laura Lee Washburn celebrates Women's History Month

Mar. 5—In this weekly feature, we put five questions before someone in the community. Today, we chat with Laura Lee Washburn, of Pittsburg State University.

1. Why is Women's History Month observed in March? What are some key dates during Women's History Month?

International Women's Day happens on March 8. This global holiday focuses on important women's issues such as reproductive rights, gender equality, and violence perpetrated against women. The origins of the month designation are tied to labor history and international in origin. In 1908, women marched in New York for better pay and the right to vote.

At a conference in 1910, Clara Zetkin, a labor organizer and women's right advocate, suggested the idea of International Women's Day at the International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen. The 100 women at the conference unanimously accepted the idea, and the day spread from country to country, culminating in United Nations official recognition of the day in 1975. This year's theme for the day is #EmbraceEquity.

Another key date is equal pay day, which takes place this year on March 14. This day illustrates how many extra days women must work in order to be paid what men were paid the previous year. The gender pay gap is 84% for full-time workers (U.S. Census Bureau) and 77% when part-time and seasonal workers are included. This wage gap hasn't changed much in the last 20 years, and the gap is even worse for Black women, whose equal pay day probably won't happen until September.

2. What should be highlighted and celebrated during Women's History Month?

Congress passed the legislation around Women's History Month because they recognized that women's contribution to the country had often gone unrecognized. When President Jimmy Carter issued the proclamation declaring the first national Women's History Week, he said "the achievements, leadership, courage, strength and love of the women who built America was as vital as that of the men whose names we know so well." The wealth of women's achievements should be celebrated throughout the month, but the ongoing activist work of women and their allies for all people to achieve equality and equity must also be recognized and highlighted.

This year in President Joe Biden's proclamation, he said, "Women — often women of color — have been on the frontlines, fighting for and securing equal rights and opportunity throughout our country's history as abolitionists, civil rights leaders, suffragists, and labor activists.

"But despite significant progress, women and girls continue to face systemic barriers to full and equal participation in our economy and society," he added.

3. How has Women's History Month changed over the decades? How has it impacted girls and women in America?

In America, Women's History Month started as a week. When President Jimmy Carter signed the proclamation in 1980, he also called for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, which states, "Equality of Rights Under the Law Shall Not Be Denied or Abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex." The simple and significant amendment has not been yet ratified by the required number of states.

4. Who are some of the top influential women in American history and what are they known for?

When the government moved women's history month from a week to a month, they recognized that women's achievements and contributions to history were so expansive and diverse that they could not be adequately recognized in a week. They also cannot be adequately recognized in a month, and any answer to this question must be arbitrary. Here's a short list of women from diverse communities that people might want to learn more about:

Mamie Till-Bradley, civil rights activist; Jane Cooke Wright, a discoverer of chemotherapy; Ellen Ochoa, first Hispanic women to go to space and eventual director of the Johnson Space Center; Dolores Huerta, creator of the United Farm Workers; Joy Harjo, U.S. poet laureate; Zitkála-Šá, co-founder of National Council of American Indians and worker for Indian Suffrage; and any number of known and unknown women who fought to help others achieve inclusion and equity.

5. In what ways can we celebrate Women's History Month? Service or donations are one way to celebrate the month.

At Pittsburg State University, the Altruistic Alliance of University Women is collecting supplies for the Safehouse Crisis Center with boxes at Root Coffee House and at Axe Library. They're looking for gently used or new purses, hygiene products, new undergarments and the like. The Safehouse Crisis Center in Pittsburg will be hosting a purse auction and dinner on March 21. SEK Women Helping Women, having given over $100,000 in small grants of $500 or less over the last eight years in order to solve crises for women and their families, has put out a call for donations as their funds are running low.

The U.S. theme this year for the month is "Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories," so I also recommend reading a book or watching a film. April Young Bennett's "Ask a Suffragist: Stories and Wisdom from America's First Feminists" is open on my desk, and I'm looking forward to the poetry in Allison Blevins' "Cataloguing Pain," which I have on order.

Laura Lee Washburn is a professor of English, the director of Creative Writing and the Distinguished Visiting Writers Series and the assistant director of Women and Gender Studies at Pittsburg State University.