Remember the Ladies


Photo: Chris Schmidt

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A by-product of the Second Wave of feminism was establishing women’s history—what some of us called “herstory”—as a discipline that needed to be studied. What were women’s roles in the United States and the world? In order to know what we could accomplish in the future, we needed to uncover the role models from our past. We’d all grown up hearing about the Founding Fathers, but what about the Founding Mothers? We needed women’s work to be recognized, and if men were not going to do it, we would have to do it ourselves.

In 1981, Congress passed a resolution establishing National Women’s History Week. It was in March, to coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8. In 1987, Congress expanded the week to a month. For the past 22 years, Congress has issued a resolution for Women’s History Month.

The president also issues an annual proclamation about Women’s History Month. Last year’s proclamation by George W. Bush stated, “Women’s History Month provides our country the privilege of honoring the countless contributions that American women have made throughout our history.” Not very inspired. 

Despite the token month in their honor, women have a long history of being ignored by their government. Abigail Adams, the wife of John Adams, the second president of the United States, was a tireless advocate for women’s rights. In a series of letters to her husband during the American Revolution and his tenure as president, she wrote compellingly of the need for the government to recognize the importance of women in the evolving nation.

Her frustration with the second-class status of women in the fledgling democracy led her to write, “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

If only women had taken her words to the streets, as she warned they would, women might not be languishing in the second-class status—or stasis—they are in today. There was no women’s rebellion 200 years ago. And while it can be argued that women have achieved significant advances since then, they have yet to achieve full equality in the United States.

It took women 174 years after Adams wrote those words to get the right to vote. And it wasn’t until 2008, more than 200 years later, that a woman ran for president on the ticket of a major party and came close to receiving the nomination.

Although Adams understood that women had a struggle ahead of them, in the revolutionary atmosphere of 18th-century America she may have hoped that women would forge ahead the way the men had.
But women have had a difficult time achieving any real power in American government. Instead of becoming president, Clinton was appointed Secretary of State—only the third woman to be appointed to that post.

Womens’ ability to break through the glass ceiling of American government has been limited. There have been only 35 women in the Senate since its establishment in 1789. Out of 1,897 Americans who have served in the Senate, less than 2 percent have been female.

Today, only 16 of the 100 senators currently serving are women, yet that is still more than ever before. Twelve of the women who have served were appointed, six of whom were appointed to succeed their
deceased husbands.

Equality continues to elude women in the government and because of the government. 

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