For some Emerson professors, Women’s History Month showcases oppression, not accomplishment

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By Vivi Smilgius, Editor-in-Chief

Women’s History Month seeks to acknowledge female accomplishment and success, but some activists believe it points to a larger systemic problem: the continued oppression of women in America and beyond. 

For Tulasi Srinivas, an anthropology professor at Emerson College, Women’s History Month highlights the structures that stand between women and success, particularly in the U.S.

“The fact that we need a history month shows how marginalized people who are central to the culture and economy of the United States are,” Srinivas said.

First recognized in New York by the Socialist Party of America, the United States’ first International Women’s Day happened on March 8, 1908, following a series of protests by New York female garment workers demanding equal pay. Former President Jimmy Carter deemed March to be Women’s History Month in 1980, dedicating the month to commemorating the role of women in American history and society. 

While the U.S. is one of the only countries to dedicate a month to Women’s History, Srinivas said the nation’s lack of women in power negates its attempts at recognition.

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Srinivas pointed to America’s government bodies, noting that women make up roughly half of the U.S. population but hold just over a quarter of seats in the nation’s Congress. Women of color, she added, are even more severely underrepresented. For Srinivas, Women’s History Month points not to a history of success, but to a centuries-long struggle.

“These cultural structures are embedded in our society,” she said. “The fact that we don’t think about them is not unusual—it’s not meant to be thought about because it is naturalized as a way things are done.” 

Srinivas said these “naturalized systems” of oppression are at the root of American politics surrounding race, ethnicity, and gender. For Srinivas, America’s celebration of singular womens’ achievements diverts from the larger question of what has prevented others from making similar strides.

Srinivas called on people to consider the barriers women face in their day to day lives, especially in professional environments. She noted that many of the standards for professional life were set by men at a time when women—secretaries, co-workers and wives—took much of life’s burdens off their plates. Now, she said, women are expected to achieve the same things without the help. 

“Until someone asks a man, ‘how do you juggle home and a career?’ I feel we’re falling behind. I’ve been asked that so many times and I don’t know that my male colleagues get asked that on a regular basis the way I do,” Srinivas said. “It implies that I’m in charge of certain things that they are not in charge of… I know that to be true, but I also think it’s remarkably unfair.”

She also noted that many women feel a commitment to home and family that is not compensated, pointing to childbirth, motherhood and the recent pandemic as examples. 

Society loses “thought and talent in the public sphere” because women are not provided adequate holiday, maternity leave or access to childcare services—resources that would allow them to take on “equitable shares of life” as many men are able to without consequence or judgment, Srinivas added.

According to Kaysha Corinealdi, an assistant professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emerson, March 8th represents labor equality and anti-discrimination in many cultures across the globe.

It’s concrete changes like childcare and maternity leave—not performative ones like inclusion—that actually break barriers faced by women each day. Corinealdi echoed Srinivas’ sentiments, saying that Women’s History Month, and feminism itself, is about more than just recognizing accomplishments or tallying representation.

“Feminism is not just how many women you can count in a group, or have gotten a particular accolade, but to what degree are systems of power shifted,” Corinealdi said. “Feminism at its root is about trying to coneptualize how to shake up the power imbalances that are part of the status quo.”

Corinealdi and Srinivas both noted the importance of opening discussions about the many ways these systems of oppression intersect— especially for women of color and in the LGBTQ community. Both professors encourage those observing Women’s History Month to consider the women who paved the way for those who have succeeded.

Corinealdi asks students to consider the authors of their classroom material. When students interact with material but fail to question who produced it, she said, they miss the opportunity to engage with intersectional approaches. 

The same question should be asked about Women’s History Month and feminism. For example, the United States has normalized feminist narratives like those of white, middle class, heterosexual and cisgender women, excluding perspectives of queer women and women of color around the globe.

Corinealdi said seeking different perspectives is the best way to become more understanding and empathetic. Remembering context is essential when celebrating the accomplishments of those before us and the efforts of those alongside us, she said.

“Sometimes we are so immersed in our own day to day realities that if we don’t have an opportunity to think about how people came before us had similar questions and tried to navigate them,” Corinealdi said. “We think it’s all about us in this particular time and place.”