These days, we smile or roll our eyes when we hear the term “fashion police,” but leading up to the Nixon administration, wearing the wrong outfit could land an otherwise innocent young woman in hot water.
Dresses were required in Nassau County schools until 1970, when administrators finally allowed girls to wear pantsuits. It was a seemingly small change by today’s standards, but every single one mattered in the movement we celebrate every March as Women’s History Month.
It was President Jimmy Carter who, in 1980, issued a presidential proclamation creating what was then National Women’s History Week.
“Too often, women were unsung, and sometimes their contributions went unnoticed,” Carter said. “But 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.”
By then, women were claiming their place. They were already earning more bachelor’s degrees than men, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and roughly half of the master’s degrees. Four decades later, in the red-hot fields of science and engineering, women still trail men in bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees, according to the National Science Foundation. And women still earn just 84 cents of every dollar a man makes, according to a 2020 Pew Research study. But they have made steady, if sometimes agonizingly slow, progress. In the century since women finally earned the right to vote, they have become professionals, more financially independent, and more visible as business leaders.
And women have worked their way into the leadership positions they have long deserved. Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981. Three years later, Geraldine Ferraro became the first female vice presidential candidate on a major party ticket.
Jeannette Rankin of Minnesota might have been the first woman elected to Congress in 1916, but Shirley Chisholm broke yet another notable glass ceiling in 1969, becoming the first Black woman sent to Washington.
And then, of course, Kamala Harris finally put a woman one step away from the Oval Office, a feat that can be topped only by whoever eventually becomes our first female president.
It seemed only logical for Congress to expand the week first set aside by Carter into something more substantial, although Capitol Hill needed a little push. Thanks to the efforts of the National Women’s History Project — a nonprofit promoting “multicultural women’s history awareness” — Congress decreed the first Women’s History Month in 1987, issuing similar proclamations each year until 1995, when Bill Clinton started the tradition of simply having presidents issue the proclamations on their own.
The last girls who were compelled to wear dresses to school would be grandparents now. Some — especially of the younger generations, who never knew differently — might even take for granted a lot of what women have achieved.
But as far as they have come, there’s still a long way to go. And to finally achieve full equality, women will depend on one another to pave the way, just as the female trailblazers of the past have done — Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Susan Ahn Cuddy, Billie Holiday, Rosalind Franklin, Susan B. Anthony, Gloria Richardson.
Don’t recognize a name? Then Women’s History Month is the perfect time to look it up and learn more about her.
Three cheers for the women who are the leaders of our nation. Our inventors. Our entrepreneurs. Those who tend to our health, and fight our battles in court. And those whose names aren’t widely known — especially those who gave birth to us, raised us, and taught us right from wrong, shaping us into the people we are today.
These women, in particular, may sometimes be taken for granted, but their contributions must never be forgotten. They make their own history, every day, in the families that ensure our society remains healthy and strong.