Students and faculty reflect on International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month

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Maddie Khaw

A display in the Lion’s Den displays influential women throughout the month of March.

By Maddie Khaw

International Women’s Day is a “global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.” The day falls on March 8 each year, and in 1987, the month was designated as Women’s History Month in the U.S. to incorporate the earlier-established day of recognition.

Feminists and people of all genders at Emerson and elsewhere feel it’s important to recognize both International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month at large. Still, many people are also keenly aware of the fact that setting aside certain time frames each year, both nationally and globally, to acknowledge women calls attention to the lack of recognition for women year-round.

“I’m not a big fan of these ‘history months,’ because I feel like it’s segregating an important issue to just one month,” said Jane Shattuc, a media studies professor and a co-founder of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department at Emerson. “Like Black History Month. We should always be talking about Black history … Nevertheless, it’s good to have it, so that we fore[ground] a lot of the issues.”

“There isn’t that much in the rest of the year that is a celebration of women’s culture,” Shattuc continued. “[The] majority of our national holidays are not about women’s culture. The presidents that we get a vacation for are men. It’s interesting, the lack of celebration of women.”

Nelli Sargsyan, an associate professor of anthropology and a coordinator for the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies minor program, said she is also skeptical of assigning certain months to the histories and identities of various social groups in the U.S. and worldwide.

“It tells me that the struggle towards justice and equitable living is still ongoing,” Sargsyan said. “If the work of all justice workers had been taken seriously, then I don’t know that it would be celebrated within just a month.”

Sargsyan described these months—such as Women’s History Month, Black History Month, and Native American Heritage Month—as “contained ways” of responding to justice groups.

She said assigning certain months and days for celebrations can be a way for people in power to respond to the anti-oppression advocacy of people of various backgrounds, “but in a way that doesn’t threaten the state … Or in ways that are not necessarily animating the political potential on a larger scale for actual genuine change.”

Despite this, Sargsyan said, it is always important to learn about the histories and identities of people whose narratives have been suppressed from the mainstream.

Her skepticism of celebrations like Women’s History Month isn’t meant to devalue their work, but “just the opposite,” she said. “Justice work should undergird and organize everyday living. Not just, ‘Oh, in this month we’re going to celebrate these folks,’ but then we just keep living in ways that [perpetuate] all the issues that they had raised and fought against.”

Emerson students had varied experiences of International Women’s Day celebrations before college. At some high schools, students gathered for schoolwide assemblies to listen to keynote speakers every March 8. At others, the day was recognized in passing, with a “Happy International Women’s Day” doled out at the beginning of the school day. For others, the day wasn’t acknowledged at all.

“I wish [International Women’s Day] was covered more in a school setting, especially growing up, because then I feel like it would have taken more of an importance in my life,” said sophomore theater and performance major Riley MacMoyle. “It’s almost just like a, ‘Happy International Women’s Day,’ and that’s it.”

Likewise, for Women’s History Month, experiences varied. In high schools and grade schools where the month was recognized, several students recalled completing projects about historical female figures.

“Growing up, we’d have to do a project for it, but we never actually delved into it,” MacMoyle said. “It was just like, pick a woman in history … and then we [would] get into fights over [how] everyone wanted to do the same person.”

Sophomore theater and design major Eli Goldberg shared a similar experience, describing how Women’s History Month lessons in his early education recognized historically significant women, but “always the same few.”

“Amelia Earhart, Michelle Obama, Harriet Tubman, and that was about the extent,” Goldberg said. “It was those three, and that was pretty much all we covered … We didn’t cover why Women’s History Month exists or anything along those lines.”

Junior journalism major and captain of Emerson’s softball team, Claire Overton noted the importance of celebrating not just the “big names” of women in sports, like Serena Williams or Mia Hamm, but also lesser-recognized figures such as Melissa Ludtke, a sports journalist who in 1978 won a lawsuit for the right to be allowed in Major League Baseball locker rooms.

“It wouldn’t be nearly as equal [of an] opportunity if it weren’t for the people that sacrificed and went through the battles for us,” Overton said. “They walked so we could run. They put in the hard work and the dedication and struggled with the leagues and teams so that we have the opportunity to play the sport that we’re playing at a collegiate level. If they didn’t do it first, then we wouldn’t be here.”

Sophomore Megan Devlin critiqued Women’s History Month for its common lack of intersectionality.

“A lot of times, Women’s History Month focuses on white women specifically, and then Black History Month focuses on Black men,” she said. “You see it more in Women’s History Month, where you see more white representation than anything else.”

This white-centered rhetoric reflects a similar pattern of contemporary mainstream feminism—which often addresses issues like “breaking the glass ceiling” without applying an intersectional lens—but Devlin has noticed more people “trying to elevate voices that need to be elevated,” she said. 

“I think that people are working towards more of an intersectional view on everything,” Devlin continued. “If we start fighting for everyone’s rights, then that makes certain powerful people very uncomfortable.”

Specifically at Emerson, sophomore journalism major Anna Schoenmann hopes that professors discuss International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month in their classes, and even suggested that the college implement a day where all classes are devoted to the topic.

“For example, if it’s an ethics class, spending that day to focus on women philosophers and focusing on their ideas, because primarily what is being taught are male writers,” Schoenmann said. “Female filmmakers or female writers, female journalists, whatever your major is, having the school implement a curriculum that teaches a wider text.”

Schoenmann said it’s important to discuss such topics because the movement toward justice “starts with people wanting to care.” This means that people of all gender identities must become involved in advocacy for gender equality.

“I feel like a lot of people I know that identify as female know about these problems and want to make it a universal, year-round issue, but I think it’s hard to do that if the people that are being ignorant don’t want to learn,” Schoenmann said. “The only way to make change happen is if the person that’s causing the problem wants to stop doing it.”

Sargsyan, whose area of expertise includes feminism, said that the way in which International Women’s Day is celebrated is essential. The history of the day itself originated in the late 19th and early 20th century with socialist activism advocating for better conditions for working women. International Women’s Day at its core is rooted in a vision of “transforming living material conditions” for women, Sargsyan said, adding that our contemporary recognition of this history should reflect that.

“If it is celebrated in a way that animates or activates or energizes or connects justice work across borders, that’s exciting,” she said. “It becomes this moment of [assessing] what we have done so far, and what else we need to do.”

Thus, to Sargsyan, International Women’s Day is not just a celebration of womanhood or an appreciation of the advances throughout history, but also an acknowledgment of the work still to be done and a time to build coalitions to generate collective action, which can be done through “actual, genuine self-reflection.”

“What do we need to do, wherever we are, so that these hard-fought fights are not turned over by forms of violence?” Sargsyan queried. “What would that look like, to take it seriously? What do we need to change at the university, for example? In the classrooms? In our interactions?”

She added that collectivity is an integral aspect of feminism, and so Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day present opportunities to join organizations or groups that are actively participating in justice work. This is one way to participate in feminist activism, Sargsyan said, “rather than only talking about it.”

“If one is really serious about this kind of transformation of consciousness and transformation of material conditions, [looking at] who I can join forces with, with whom I can work,” Sargsyan said, “[whether] it is fellow students on campus, or it is connected to any communities around Boston.”

Sargsyan noted that this work doesn’t have to be “this huge collective effort” in order to be impactful. Regardless of the number of participants, any co-operative organizing is meaningful.

“Any collective work, at any scale, is significant,” Sargsyan said. “If we take this seriously and work with this, I can see it transforming material conditions. If March 8th can become a day of considering this approach, that would be fantastic.”