As March draws to a close, we look back at Women’s History Month, and find out why it is important that we celebrate women’s history.
“I read (history) a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars and pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all – it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. The speeches that are put in heroes’ mouths, their thoughts and designs – the chief of all this must be invention, and invention is what delights me in other books”.
This quote is from Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, which is my absolute favourite book by Jane Austen (1775-1817). Austen is a famous British novelist who also wrote Pride & Prejudice and Emma. This is also my favourite quote ever from a book because I love history but it’s incredibly boring when it’s just about men fighting with each other over who gets to be king or pope.
I love March because the entire month is dedicated to celebrating women’s history. Women’s History Month isn’t just about learning of famous queens like Queen Elizabeth I or empresses like Catherine the Great of Russia but about recognising the rebellious women who’ve changed history like Joan of Arc, who dressed as a man and led the French to victory against the English. This was despite the fact that Joan had no real military training and girls were most definitely not allowed to dress like men. Or, lead armies.
It’s about learning the real history of women – not the kind that is taught in history books, like the life of Rosa Parks, Parks is known for ‘starting’ the Civil Rights movement in Montgomery, Alabama in the United States as she chose to sit down on a seat in a bus that a white person wanted. After the end of slavery in America ended in 1865 following a civil war, the federal government and individual states created a series of laws (known as Jim Crow) which insisted that Black people were still worth less than white people and which prevented them from sharing bathrooms and water fountains. They couldn’t even attend the same schools and schools for Black children didn’t get any tax money. This meant they struggled with few resources. Many children were then forced to leave school early to work to help feed their families.
On December 1. 1955, Rosa Parks, who was 42 at the time, refused to stand up on a bus to give her seat to a white person. Parks name appears in lots of history books, including ones written for children but all of them list her as a “simple seamstress”. Parks was working as tailor’s assistant in a department store at the time, but she wasn’t just a tired woman who sat down on a bus, as the Horrible Histories music video suggests.
Rosa Parks was a civil rights activist for more than 20 years at this point. Her decision to refuse to get up was spur-of-the-moment but it was one made knowing full well that she would be arrested for it. By dismissing Parks’s work as a civil rights activist, we ignore who truly amazing and brave Parks was. Parks wasn’t just a woman who sat on a bus. She was an amazing woman and brave woman who fought for the rights of Black people.
Women’s History Month is also about learning the names of famous women inventors and scientists who’ve been erased from history. My favourite story about the erasure of women’s history in science is about Hedy Lamarr.
Lamarr was a very famous actress in the 1930s and 1940s. During the Second World War (1938-1945), Lamarr and her partner George Antheil got a patent on a “secret communication system”. Legend has it that the American generals told Lamarr she should concentrate on looking pretty in movies and ignored the plans. Several decades later, that patent is now the basis of GPS, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth technology. Without Lamarr, you wouldn’t be able to use the internet on phones and ipads. Lamarr invented other things as well but never got the credit she deserved when she was alive.
Lots of women scientists get ignored or dismissed: James Watson and Francis Crick won a Nobel prize for discovering the double helix shape of DNA, but it was years before they acknowledged that they never would have done it without the work of Rosalind Franklin. Mary Tharpe, who was the first person to map the ocean floor to show that it wasn’t flat but full of underwater mountains, valleys, and volcanoes, was ignored and belittled because she was a woman.
Until today, I had no idea that the first person to discover that sex differences in animals (including human animals!) was due to chromosomes, which are the tiny thread like part which lives in cells that make up every living thing was a woman called Dr. Nettie Stevens.
Women’s History Month is essential so we can celebrate and learn about all the amazing women who’ve changed the world.
I celebrate Women’s History Month by reading biographies of women: Rosa Parks, Joan of Arc, Elizabeth of York (the first Tudor Queen), Empress Dowager Cixi, and Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia Romanov (Grand Duchesses of Russia). Who will you be reading?