U.S. Celebrates Women’s Contributions to the World Every March

Each year, the president issues a proclamation calling on all citizens to observe March as National Women’s History Month, as well as a separate proclamation on International Women’s Day, March 8. The worldwide celebration, begun in 1975 by the United Nations, recognizes women’s achievements, highlights issues of common concern and focuses on ending discrimination and increasing support for women’s full and equal participation in society.

In 2013, the theme is “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.”

The origins of National Women’s History Month can be traced to Sonoma County, California, where in 1978 the Commission on the Status of Women initiated Women’s History Week. Two years later, President Jimmy Carter asked Americans to celebrate women’s historic accomplishments in conjunction with International Women’s Day. Congress established the first National Women’s History Week in 1981 and expanded it to a month in 1987.


In recent decades, significant steps have been taken to improve education, health, family life, economic opportunities and political empowerment for women. The U.S. experience shows that, as the status of women advances, so does that of their families, their communities, their workplaces and their nation
In many ways the birth of the women’s rights movement in the United States is closely tied to the abolitionist movement, which was supported fervently by many American women.  It was the exclusion of female abolitionist delegates from the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention held in London that inspired Elizabeth Cady Stanton and abolitionist Lucretia Mott to discuss the development of a women’s rights movement in the United States.

In the first half of the 19th century, women were not allowed the freedoms men enjoyed in the eyes of the law, the church or the government. Women could not vote, hold elective office, attend college or earn a living. If married, they could not make legal contracts, divorce an abusive husband or gain custody of their children.

In July 1848, Stanton and Mott joined with other like-minded women for the first Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, New York. Their “Declaration of Sentiments,” based on the U.S. Declaration of Independence, demanded equal rights for women, including the right to vote. Over 300 people attended the convention; the document was signed by 68 women and 32 men.


In 1920, with the ratification of the 19th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, American women finally gained the right to vote.  Ultimately, it was economics, rather than politics, that changed women’s roles in American society and created greater momentum for the women’s rights movement.

As many families moved from farms to cities, the economic role of women diminished.  But the Great Depression, which began with the October 1929 stock market crash, compelled more women to seek paid work outside the home in order to aid their families.

Women supporting the Equal Rights Amendment demonstrate in front of the Statue of Liberty on August 10, 1970. (© AP Images)

World War II catapulted up to 38 percent of American women into the workforce to fill the labor shortage left by men serving as soldiers. After the war, returning soldiers displaced many women, but women re-entered the workforce with the economic expansion of the late 1950s and the 1960s.  As women’s contributions to their family’s economic well-being grew, they found that discrimination increasingly frustrated their efforts to advance in the workplace.
Equal opportunity was offered to women in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited sex discrimination in employment.  To ensure that the act’s provisions for women were enforced, activists joined together to create in 1966 the National Organization for Women (NOW).  NOW is currently the largest organization for feminists in the United States, with some 500,000 members.
By the early 1970s, women serving in both chambers of the U.S. Congress helped focus more attention on the needs of women.  Some of the significant pieces of legislation affecting women that were passed into law resulted in:

  • Greater freedom in reproductive choice (1973);
  • Minimum wage protection for domestic workers (1974);
  • Prohibitions against discriminating in employment against pregnant women (1978);
  • Tougher child support laws and protection of pension rights for widows and divorced women (1984);
  • Provision of federal funds for child care (1990);
  • Employment protection for workers needing extended time off to care for family members (1993);
  • Protections against violence (1994)


American women have made significant gains in the quest for equal opportunity in the nation’s economic and political spheres of life, but there are still problems to be overcome.
For example, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that in 2005, women over the age of 16 comprise 59 percent of the workforce, yet, on average, they earned only 77 cents for every $1 their male counterparts earned.  Part of the reason for this might be that women remain clustered in lower-paying occupations, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Another challenge facing working women is how to balance the demands of home and family with that of the workplace.  Many women with children and jobs face the conundrum of neglecting one or the other.  Some high-achieving women find themselves forgoing families.  Sylvia Ann Hewlett, economist and author of several books about professional women, found that 42 percent of corporate women are childless by age 40, but only 14 percent planned to be.
Despite the challenges they still face, American women can be proud of their accomplishments, and National Women’s History Month is a good time to reflect upon women’s progress.


Texts, pamphlets and publications:


Library of Congress: Women’s History Month
This site includes links to Library of Congress resources for the study of women’s history and culture, veterans’ stories, photographs and other media, and materials for teachers.

Library of Congress – American Memory Collection: Woman Suffrage
The National American Woman Suffrage Association collection consists of 167 books, pamphlets and other artifacts documenting the suffrage campaign.

National Women’s History Project (NWHP)
Every year in March, the NWHP, which was founded in 19980, coordinates observances of National Women’s History Month throughout the United States.

International Women’s Day and The United Nations and the Status of Women.

National Museum of Women in the Arts
This is the only museum in the world dedicated exclusively to recognizing the contributions of women artists.

United Nations: International Women’s Day
Since 1975, the United Nations has celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8.  The theme for 2008 is “Investing in Women and Girls.”


Milestones in U.S. Women’s History

Outstanding people and events that moved women’s rights forward.
1776: Abigail Adams is an early champion of women’s rights. In a letter to her husband John Adams — who later becomes the second U.S. president — she urges lawmakers of the Continental Congress to “Remember the Ladies. … Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands.”
1848: U.S. women’s rights movement is sparked at a convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Delegates issue a Declaration of Sentiments calling for equality with men, including the right to vote.
1849: Elizabeth Blackwell is the first woman to graduate from medical school in the United States. She becomes a pioneer in women’s education in medicine.
1850: Escaped slave Harriet Tubman becomes a leader in the Underground Railroad, helping hundreds of slaves to their freedom in the years before the Civil War. During the war, she serves as a nurse, spy and scout for the Union forces.
1851: Abolitionist and former slave Sojourner Truth gives her famous Ain’t I a Woman? speech to the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. She is an eloquent champion of the rights of African Americans and women.
1869: Wyoming, then a U.S. territory, is the first jurisdiction to grant women the right to vote. Many Wyoming legislators — all male — hope it will attract more single marriageable women to the region.
1870: Ellen Swallow Richards is the first woman in America accepted to any school of science and technology (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). She becomes a pioneer in sanitary engineering and a founder of home economics in the United States.
1878: Soprano Marie Seilka is the first African-American artist to perform in the White House; she sings for President Rutherford B. Hayes
1881: Clara Barton founds the American Red Cross, expanding on the original concept of the International Red Cross to include assisting in national disasters as well as wars.
1887: Susanna Madora Salter is elected mayor of Argonia, Kansas, becoming the first female U.S. mayor years before women received the right to vote nationwide.
1887: Journalist Nellie Bly pioneers investigative journalism. As a reporter for the New York World, she feigns insanity and is committed to a women’s insane asylum to expose abusive conditions. In 1889, she circles the globe in 72 days, a world record.
1900: Golfer Margaret Abbott is the first American woman to win a medal in the Olympics. At the Paris games, she takes the gold medal.
1916: Jeannette Rankin of Montana is the first woman elected to Congress, serving two nonconsecutive terms. She casts the only vote in Congress against war on Japan after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
1920: The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving women the right to vote, becomes law when it is ratified by two-thirds of the states. The League of Women Voters is founded.
1921: Bessie Coleman becomes the first African-American woman to earn an aviation pilot’s license and the first American of any race or gender to earn an international pilot’s license.
1923: Family planning pioneer Margaret Sanger opens the first legal, physician-run birth control clinic in the United States, in New York City. In 1965, a Supreme Court ruling (Griswold v. Connecticut) legalizes birth control for married couples in the United States.
1925: Nellie Tayloe Ross is the first woman governor of a state (Wyoming). In 1933, she is appointed first female director of the U.S. Mint.
1926: Gertrude Ederle is the first woman to swim the English Channel. Only five men swam the Channel before her, and she cuts two hours off their fastest time.
1931: Jane Addams is the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Addams is an advocate for the poor, a pacifist, a reformer and a feminist.
1932: Amelia Earhart makes the first solo flight by a woman across the Atlantic. She is the first woman to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
1932: Hattie Wyatt Caraway of Arkansas, appointed to fill her late husband’s Senate seat, becomes the first woman to win a Senate seat in her own right when she wins a special election. She is also the first to chair a Senate committee and to preside over the Senate.
1933: Frances Perkins is sworn in as secretary of labor. She was appointed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the first woman ever to serve in the U.S. Cabinet.
1933: Eleanor Roosevelt transforms the role of first lady during her husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency. She is the first president’s wife to hold regular press conferences and go on the lecture circuit, and her social activism gives a voice to the powerless: minorities, women and disadvantaged.
1947: Gerty Cori becomes the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize in the sciences (physiology or medicine), and her research advances the treatment of diabetes.
1953: Jacqueline Cochran is the first woman to break the sound barrier. During her career, she sets more speed and altitude records than any of her contemporaries, male or female.
1955: Rosa Parks is arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, thus sparking the U.S. civil rights movement.
1955: Marian Anderson becomes the first black person, American or otherwise, to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. (Her famous open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington took place on Easter Sunday, 1939.)
1962: Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring calls attention to the dangers of agricultural pesticides. It inspires a national environmental movement in the United States.
1963: Betty Friedan publishes The Feminine Mystique, which galvanizes the women’s rights movement. The Equal Pay Act prohibits paying women less than men for the same job.
1964: Patsy Mink of Hawaii is the first Asian-Pacific-American woman elected to Congress. Margaret Chase Smith becomes the first woman to run for a U.S. presidential nomination on a major party ticket (Republican; Barry Goldwater wins the nomination).
1964: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race or sex.
1968: Shirley Chisholm is the first black woman elected to Congress. In 1972, she becomes the first black candidate for a presidential nomination on a major-party ticket (Democrat), and the first woman to run for the Democratic presidential nomination (George McGovern wins the nomination).
1972: Title IX of the Education Amendments bans sex discrimination in schools. Enrollment of women in athletics programs and professional schools increases dramatically.
1978: Women’s History Week first is celebrated in Sonoma County, California. (Congress passes a resolution on National Women’s History Week in 1981.)
1981: Sandra Day O’Connor is the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, serving until 2006. Jeane Kirkpatrick becomes the first female U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
1983: Astronaut Sally Ride is the first American woman in space, flying on the shuttle Challenger. She flies a second shuttle mission in 1984.
1984: Geraldine Ferraro becomes the first woman nominated for vice president by a major party (Democrat) when she is selected as Walter Mondale’s running mate.
1985: Wilma Mankiller is elected first female principal chief of an American Indian nation, the Cherokee Nation.
1987: Congress expands Women’s History Week to a month-long event celebrated in March.
1989: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida is the first Hispanic-American woman elected to Congress.
1990: Dr. Antonia Novello is sworn in as U.S. Surgeon General, becoming the first woman and first Hispanic to hold that job.
1992: Astronaut Mae Jemison, a physician, is the first African-American woman in space, flying aboard the space shuttle Endeavour as a mission specialist.
1993: Janet Reno is the first woman attorney general of the United States. Toni Morrison becomes the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature.
1995: Lieutenant Colonel Eileen Collins is the first woman to pilot a space shuttle. In 1999, she becomes the first woman to command a space shuttle.
1997: Madeleine Albright is sworn in as the first woman U.S. secretary of state. Born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, she became a U.S. citizen in 1957.
2001: Elaine Chao becomes secretary of labor, the first Asian-American woman to be appointed to a president’s Cabinet.
2005: Condoleezza Rice is the first African-American woman to serve as U.S. secretary of state.
2006: Captain Nicole Malachowski debuts as the first female demonstration pilot in the U.S. Air Force’s air demonstration squadron team, the Thunderbirds.
2006: Effa Manley becomes the first woman elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In the 1930s and ‘40s, she was co-owner of the Negro Leagues team Newark Eagles.
2007: Nancy Pelosi is sworn in as the first female speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, one of the most powerful posts in the U.S. government.
2007: Harvard University names Drew Gilpin Faust its first woman president in the school’s 371-year history.
2007: Peggy Whitson, an American astronaut, becomes the first woman to command the International Space Station.
2008: Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska, becomes the first woman to run for vice president on the Republican ticket. Two years earlier, she was elected the first female governor of Alaska.
2008: Hillary Rodham Clinton is the first woman to become a leading candidate for a presidential nomination, mounting a fierce challenge against Barack Obama, the ultimate winner of the Democratic Party’s nomination and the general election. In 2009, Clinton is sworn in as secretary of state, becoming the first former first lady to serve in a president’s Cabinet.
2009: Michelle Obama becomes the first African-American first lady of the United States.
2009: In the 111th Congress, a record 17 women serve in the Senate and 73 women serve in the House of Representatives. This total of 90 seats equals 17 percent of the 535 seats in Congress. In addition, three women serve as delegates to the House of Representatives from Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Washington.
2010: Kathryn Bigelow is the first woman in the 82-year history of the Academy Awards to win an Academy Award as best director. She claimed the Oscar for her 2009 Iraq War movie The Hurt Locker.
2011: Jill Abramson becomes the first woman executive editor of the New York Times in the newspaper’s 160-year history


Timeline of Women Awarded the Nobel Prize in the Sciences

The Nobel Prize in Physics

1963: Maria Goeppert Mayer
1903: Marie Curie

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry

2009: Ada E. Yonath
1964: Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin
1935: Irène Joliot-Curie
1911: Marie Curie
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

2009: Elizabeth H. Blackburn
2009: Carol W. Greider
2008: Françoise Barré-Sinoussi
2004: Linda B. Buck
1995: Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard
1988: Gertrude B. Elion
1986: Rita Levi-Montalcini
1983: Barbara McClintock
1977: Rosalyn Yalow
1947: Gerty Cori
For more information about the work of these amazing women, visit http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/lists/women.html

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