Editorial: National Women’s History Month

What we can do to change the lack of local knowledge of women’s history.

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In 1909, the first National Women’s Day was observed in the United States, and in 1910 the official declaration for the International Women’s History Day was approved by over 100 women throughout 17 different countries from the United Nations. This was one of the first big pushes for recognizing the impacts women have had on history.

“International Women’s Day is really about international collaborative efforts. I have celebrated International Women’s Day in China, and every year [female employees] had a half day off,” assistant professor of women’s and gender studies Dr. Dong Isbister said. “They would have activities for us to do, and it was more about letting us celebrate women’s freedom and autonomy. It is interesting to see America not really doing that.” 

About 70 years after the first Woman’s Day, a motion was set forth to introduce a National Women’s History Week in the United States, and this push was initiated by the Education Task Force of the Sonoma County Commission, first group to celebrate Women’s History Week in 1978. 

The request for the national week was approved by President Jimmy Carter in February 1980. Shortly after, in 1987, the entire month of March became National Women’s History Month. A Presidential Proclamation is issued each year to recognise and acknowledge the outstanding achievements of American women from past, present and future. 

Though there is much to celebrate about the advancement and progress of international and national women’s history recognition, we need to consider how that history has impacted our local area. Few people know much about our local women’s history here in Platteville. Multiple University of Wisconsin-Platteville students and faculty were asked about their knowledge of Platteville’s local women’s history, and the answers were generally the same – they could not think of anything in particular.

“I moved to Wisconsin about three years ago, and I really don’t know anything about the women’s history. Especially with this school, you see a lot of male figures represented. I think if we had something dedicated to the women who helped develop [the school] or the first woman who attended here, that would be cool,” sophomore psychology major Wesley Proctor said.

What many people do not know is that three buildings on our campus are either named after women or have a studio within them named after a woman. These buildings are Hugunin Hall, named after Marjorie Hugunin; Gardner Hall, named after Bee A. Gardner; and the Art Building has a painting studio named after Mary Jean Donchnahl Hlavac. 

This general lack of knowledge and conversation about Platteville’s women’s history, according to English professor Dr. Teresa Burns, could be because either women did not play an important role in the history and development of Platteville, or it could be because our history books teach students through a gendered lens. 

How can we, as a community, change this local ignorance towards women’s history and start raising more awareness in Platteville? One of the first important steps is to break down the structured gender norms and ideals to understand the true, empirical definition of feminism.

“Feminism simply means bringing about greater levels of equality on the basis of gender. That is it,” assistant professor of political science Dr. Shan Sappleton said.

It is important to have an understanding of why awareness months like this exist. Burns noted that months like National Women’s History Month have been put in place to educate people on certain topics that are not often taught in classrooms. In the case of Platteville, gender seems to be one of the main topics.

“What is associated with masculinity and femininity, right now, seems to be to push biological females into fields that are considered more masculine, but the same is not true for biological males. This, right here, would suggest that we still have a masculine, male-centered view associated with success,” Burns said.

Along with these ingrained ideas that gender-based careers lead to success, we can still see a large gender wage gap across the nation. In Platteville and the surrounding Grant County area, there is about a $9,024 gap between the average salary for men versus women. These inequalities, though smaller than they used to be, say ten years ago, still persist today. 

“There remains huge inequities along gender lines in the United States, which is actually surprising given our call for democracy. We tend to overlook gender equality, and that is still somewhat dismissive, although we have come a long way in terms of addressing such inequalities. Women’s History Month is supposed to help bring attention to that specific issue,” Sappleton said.

Another step that could be taken to raise awareness in the community would be to introduce local women’s history into the classroom setting, starting at the middle school or high school level and continuing through college.

“A lot of high school curriculum does not seem to be updated. Teachers do their best with what they have to provide up-to-date information, but they also have to follow the set curriculum,” Proctor said. “The history months do, though, provide them with a platform to discuss these topics and acknowledge things that are not in the text book and are not acknowledged by the systems in power.”

A final suggestion that I will offer to improve the education about local history would be to involve the campus and community with content, such as panel discussions and film screenings, to create conversation about the topic. It may be difficult to locate films about local women’s history, since not much seems to have been documented, but it could be a great opportunity to at least begin the conversation about women’s history in our local community. 

“It would be good to do historical research on the women who have impacted this area. Having a mining history, it seems likely that we wouldn’t have had a lot of women working in that way, but I think we should be looking at the history we are making now,” senior psychology major Melody Hayden said. “We have a lot of women in the STEM fields, and it would be great to see if we have had any women who have had an impact on the national or global level.” 

Women have taken a stand for years to earn rights that have so often been handed to men, and though there is still room to grow, the advancement has been inspiring. Now it is time for our community to start digging deeper into the impacts that women left behind in our hometown of Platteville, Wisconsin.

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