Women’s History Month: What is it, when did it start, who is being honored this year?

Women’s History Month: What is it, when did it start, who is being honored this year?
Suffragettes demonstrate at Carnegie Hall in New York City circa 1918. Lucy Burns, second from the left, is being honored by the Women's History Alliance. (FPG/Getty Images)

This year marks the 32nd anniversary of the passage of a law making March Women’s History Month in the United States.

The observation, which was born out of a California school district’s celebration of women’s achievements, now is celebrated across the country and includes parades, lectures, health screenings, art exhibits and other activities that highlight women’s contributions to society.

Here’s a look at the history of the movement, why it’s celebrated in March, this year’s theme and the National Women’s History Project honorees.

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What is it?

Women’s History Month is a celebration of women’s contributions to society.

When is it?

In the United States, it is celebrated each year in March.

Why March?

March was chosen as the month to celebrate women’s history because the first observances of Women’s History Week revolved around International Women’s Day, which is March 8. International Women’s Day, which honors women’s achievements worldwide, was first celebrated on March 8, 1911. The United Nations has sponsored International Women’s Day observances since 1975.

How did it start?

In 1978, a school district in Sonoma, California, decided to honor women’s achievements by participating in a Women’s History Week event. According to the National Women’s History Project, schools hosted essay contests, presentations by women were given at many of the schools in the district and a parade was held in downtown Santa Rosa, California.

The following year, a two-week conference examining women’s history was held at Sarah Lawrence College. Those participating in the conference learned about Sonoma County's Women's History Week celebration and decided to organize similar celebrations within their own schools and organizations.

During the following seven months, they lobbied for a declaration of Women’s History Week and in March 1980, President Jimmy Carter issued a presidential proclamation declaring the week of March 8, 1980, as National Women's History Week.

In 1981, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., co-sponsored a joint congressional resolution calling the week of March 7, 1982, Women’s History Week.

Schools across the country began to incorporate Women’s History Week into their curriculum and, eventually, the week grew into a monthlong observance.

Fourteen states had declared March Women’s History Month by 1986. In 1987, the National Women’s History Project asked Congress to establish March as Women’s History Month. On March 12, 1987, the celebration became official when legislation was passed to designate March as Woman’s History Month in the United States.

What is this year’s theme?

The 2020 National Women’s History Month theme is “Valiant Women of the Vote.” The theme “celebrates the women who have fought for woman’s right to vote in the United States.”

Who is being honored this year?

Here, from the National Women’s History Project, is a list of those being honored this year.

  • Maria Teresa Kumar: CEO, Voto Latino
  • Eleanor Holmes Norton: Civil rights leader, congressperson, lawyer and organizer
  • Terry Ao Minnis: Senior director of the census and voting programs, Asian Americans Advancing Justice
  • Edith Mayo: Suffrage historian, women’s history movement activist

Deceased honorees

  • Lucy Burns - July 28, 1879 – Dec. 22, 1966: American woman suffrage activist
  • Carrie Chapman Catt – Jan.  9, 1859 – March 9, 1947: American woman suffrage activist
  • Wilhelmina Kekelaokalaninui Widemann Dowsett - March 28, 1861 - Dec 10, 1929: Suffragist, founder of the National Women’s Equal Suffrage Association of Hawai’i
  • Ana Roqué de Duprey - April 18, 1853 – 1933: Suffragist and co-founder of the University of Puerto Rico
  • Elizabeth Piper Ensley - 1847-1919: Educator and African-American suffragist
  • Marie Foster – Oct. 24, 1917 – Sept. 6, 2003: Civil rights leader
  • Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee - 1896-1966: Suffragist, member of the Women’s Political Equality League
  • Virginia Louisa Minor - March 27, 1824 – Aug. 14, 1894: American woman suffrage activist
  • Anna Howard Shaw – Feb. 14, 1847 – July 2, 1919: American woman suffrage activist