We celebrate Women’s History Month each March to honor the legacy, contributions and resilience of women and girls around the world, but a recognized time dedicated to celebrating women wasn’t formally added to the calendar until 1980. What originally became a national, monthlong celebration began as a locally celebrated women’s history week.
In 1978, a California group called the Education Task Force of the Sonoma County Commission on the Status of Women planned the first ever “Women’s History Week.” The event was scheduled during the week of March 8 to coincide with International Women’s Day, which had been observed throughout the world since the early 1900s. International Women’s Day has roots in the Socialist movement in America; in 1909, the Socialist Party held an anniversary celebration of the garment worker’s strikes in New York that occurred in 1908. As socialism spread throughout Europe in the following years, so did women’s day observances. By 1975, the U.N. officially began recognizing International Women’s Day.
In 1979, other communities around the country began recognizing their own women’s history weeks with the annual “Real Women” essay contest, educational programs and the Santa Rosa, California parade.
In 1980, the National Women’s History Project, now known as the National Women’s History Alliance, lobbied for recognition throughout the United States. President Jimmy Carter subsequently issued a presidential proclamation declaring the week of March 8, 1980 as National Women’s History Week.
“From the first settlers who came to our shores, from the first American Indian families who befriended them, men and women have worked together to build this nation,” the proclamation said. “Too often the women were unsung and sometimes their contributions went unnoticed. But the achievements, leadership, courage, strengths and love of the women who built America was as vital as that of the men whose names we know so well.”
After Carter, Presidents continued to proclaim the week of March 8 as Women’s History Week. But in 1987, Congress passed Public Law 100-9, which designated March as Women’s History Month. In the following years, Congress passed additional resolutions that authorized and requested the President to proclaim March of each year as Women’s History Month. Since 1995, each President has issued an annual proclamation recognizing the month.
Since it was first recognized, the National Women’s History Alliance has also designated an official theme for each year’s celebration. For 2021, the theme is “Valiant Women of the Vote: Refusing to be Silenced” because many 2020 celebrations for the centennial of women’s suffrage were canceled due to the pandemic.