March is Women’s History Month, which immediately sparks the question: “Why do women need a month?” Like February’s Black History Month, Women’s History Month seems almost insulting, trite and a lame effort at recognizing groups that are underrepresented or less socially privileged.
On the other hand, Women’s History Month provides an opportunity to reflect on not only the achievements of outstanding individual women but also the ways in which American women have contributed to American life through their values, choices and effort. AAUW-Maryville (the American Association of University Women) offers this series of guest editorials during March as a way of recognizing those women who have gone before us.
The history of American women of all races and ethnicities is a history about the fight for freedom. It is also a record of the very mixed and often contradictory roles American women have played since the beginning of the republic. Women were historically expected to create and maintain a home, produce and nurture their babies, and provide food and clothing for their families. On the other hand, they were expected to step into masculine roles when necessary and without hesitation.
In her book, “American Women: 400 years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines,” author Gail Collins reminds us that crises like wars, economic disasters and epidemics historically changed gender roles and expectations, requiring women to do things regarded as socially unacceptable.
Whenever the United States has been engaged in war, starting with the American Revolution, men have taken up arms and women have stepped into their roles. Think Rosie the Riveter or the Girls of Atomic City. Women learned to lead, manage, produce and protect, and, often, when soldiers returned home, they found that their wives were quite different from the docile helpmates they had left. This pattern repeated itself throughout history and undoubtedly led to slowly but permanently expanding roles for American women in the home and workplace, which eventually include women, themselves, serving in the U.S. armed forces.
Today, we recognize and salute the brave and resourceful women throughout American history who reimagined their lives in a crisis and stepped up to do what needed to be done.
Sunday: “American Women, Social Change and Clothing Styles”