SANTA ROSA, Calif — Since 1987, the United States has designated the month of March as Women’s History Month to commemorate and encourage the study, observance and celebration of the vital role women have played in American history.
The origins of the month-long celebration can be traced back to Sonoma County. It all started in 1972, a banner year in women’s history, when a student asked Molly Murphy MacGregor, a high school social studies teacher at the time, an important question: What is the women’s movement?
“I didn’t really know, but I didn’t admit that I didn’t know,” MacGregor, now the executive director of the National Women’s History Alliance, told ABC10 with a laugh.
On a search for more answers, that weekend, she sat down with her history books and opened the only one that had anything on women’s history, which was a single chapter on the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. MacGregor had majored in history, but the significance of the convention hadn’t dawned on her during her early studies.
“Somehow I didn’t make the connection between the fact that because these women were bold enough, brave enough, courageous enough to defy all social conventions at the time, that here I was, centuries later, being able to be a married woman teaching high school and wearing slacks to school. It was a revelation to me,” said MacGregor — a revelation that would catapult a whole journey of relearning and reteaching history.
In graduate school, MacGregor helped give presentations on the multicultural history of women in America. In 1975, she became one of the first commissioners on the Sonoma County Commission on the Status of Women. In 1980, she became a co-founder of the National Women’s History Project (NWHP) along with Mary Ruthsdotter, Maria Cuevas, Paula Hammette, and Bette Morgan. The project, which was an offshoot of the Commission on the Status of Women, would become its own nonprofit.
Together, they held a hometown parade to celebrate women and their accomplishments and secured local proclamations, putting Women’s History Week on school calendars.
“It was this whole launching of information people hadn’t thought about. When you swim in the water and breathe the air and everything has a male reference to it, you lose it. You don’t understand that you’re learning history and you’re only learning the odd numbers,” said MacGregor.
Their efforts would be a blueprint for a national program. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter designated March 2-8 as National Women’s History Week, to be aligned with International Women’s Day. In 1987, the NWHP led a successful campaign to recognize March as National Women’s History Month.
Today, the NWHP is called the National Women’s History Alliance (NWHA). According to its website, the NWHA is “known nationally as the only clearinghouse providing information and training in multicultural women’s history for educators, community organizations and parents – for anyone want to expand their understand of women contributions to U.S. history.”
The work continues to advance the lives of women and girls in Sonoma County, according to Janice Blalock, chair of the Commission on the Status of Women.
“We really try to be very relevant and look at areas where voices need to be amplified and to bring those voices to the forefront,” Blalock told ABC10.
The commission does that through ad hoc committees, as well as the organization’s Junior Commission, which first formed in 1992. The project serves as a way for high school students (14-18 years old) to learn more about issues regarding women’s equity while feeling empowered to use their voice.
Blalock said she continues to remain hopeful for more positive change for women across the globe.
“Things like Roe v. Wade and a lot of things that are happening in other states and happening globally that are impacting women and what freedom and rights they may have… it’s pretty shocking where we’re at at this point. But to see women come together, to see #MeToo come about, to see our rights eroding and women really pushing back, I am very optimistic about the advancement of women in powerful positions,” said Blalock. “We’re having a seat at the table, we’re being at the head of the table.”
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