What’s the History Behind Women’s History Month?

(Last Updated On: March 11, 2022)

Women’s History Month (WHM), as we know it today, has only been officially recognized in the United States since 1987. Yes, that means that if WHM was a person, they’d be a millennial! Fortunately, women’s rights activists and suffragettes fought to acknowledge the contributions of women long before WHM’s avocado toast-eating peers were born. You could say she is an old soul—and a fierce one at that.

It all started when the Theresa Serber Malkiel of the Socialist Party of America organized a “Women’s Day” on February 28th, 1909 in New York City.

black and white photograph of Malkiel wearing a blazer and hat
Theresa Serber Malkiel

At the time, women in the United States did not have the right to vote, so activists like Malkiel used the day to gain support for women’s suffrage. News of the day spread thanks to the efforts of other women’s rights activists and suffragettes. German activist Clara Zetkin, for example, suggested in 1910 that the International Conference of Working Women should celebrate the day. The next year, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and Denmark celebrated International Women’s Day (IWD). 

The informal celebrations continued in these countries throughout the early 20th century. IWD received official recognition in 1917 when March 8th was declared a national holiday in Russia. It continued to be celebrated primarily in socialist and communist countries through the 1960s.

In the United States, efforts to celebrate Women’s History Day/Week/Month were overshadowed by the women’s suffrage movement, which won white women the right to vote in 1920. It wouldn’t be until 1965, however, that all Americans—regardless of race—were guaranteed the right to vote.  

photograph of people standing and watching Lyndon B. Johnson sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965
People observe Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting.

The feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s helped IWD gain recognition as a mainstream holiday within the United States. In the early 1970s, activists promoted Women’s History Week as a way to inspire public interest and support for Title IX legislation, which ultimately passed on March 1, 1972.

The United Nations adopted it as a global holiday in 1977. The next year, a Sonoma, CA school district brought Women’s History Week to their students. Disparate groups across the US celebrated the week informally in 1978 and 1979, then in 1980 President Jimmy Carter proclaimed that the week of March 8th would be National Women’s History Week. The National Women’s History Project would spend the next six years advocating for something more permanent.  Finally, in 1987 Congress declared March to be Women’s History Month (WHM).

Today, IWD and Women’s History Month are celebrated largely from two different points of view. On one hand, some see them as an opportunity to draw attention to the ongoing challenges that women face. On the other hand, some use them to celebrate womanhood. Regardless of the motivation, celebrating IWD and Women’s History Month gives us all the opportunity to reflect on women’s historical struggles and triumphs.