Letter from the President
Black History Month was first celebrated at Kent State University in 1970. In 1976, the month of February was officially designated Black History Month nationwide by President Gerald Ford. The roots of Women’s History Month on the other hand date back to the first celebration of International Women’s Day in 1911, and to Women’s History Week in the late 1970s. In 1987, Congress designated March of that year as the first nationally recognized Women’s History Month.
For a long time, and to a certain extent until today, the focus of Black and Women’s History Months seems to have been on bringing to the fore exceptional African Americans and Women who were seen as not having been given their rightful place in History. These typically included people such as the first African Americans to be elected to Congress, the Suffragettes, famous African American and female writers, preachers, athletes, etc. I find this tendency to focus on the stories of Firsts, Heroes, and Exceptional Individuals to be very American. For a long time, this was also the main focus of historical professionals and handbooks across the globe. Ever since the 1960s, however, professional historians have worked very hard to uncover the stories of the masses of people, of ordinary men and women, and especially of those who lived their lives at the lower end of the scale of power.
A third kind of criticism points to the need for more attention to the intersections between race, gender and other social variables. Especially Women’s History Month gets singled out by critics as a celebration of white, heterosexual women, leaving out the experiences of women from minority groups.
All of these criticisms reflect real issues that need to be dealt with. Not only in history but in all areas of American life, African Americans and women are still underrepresented, their potential undervalued and their opportunities severely limited when compared to those of white men.
Both Months were initially developed as grassroots initiatives, and both have been ‘officialized’ by government and other authorities. But clearly, the grassroots are moving again in the US, reclaiming these Months as their own and shaping them in ways they see fit. African Americans and Women both still have a lot to grieve about, perhaps more today than a couple of years ago. Demanding their place in the spotlight during these two months can help unite people around common goals, and make the way to a more fully integrated position in mainstream History and Society. So let’s get busy!