By Sarah Tewksbury, Staff Writer
Women’s history month is celebrated each year through March. In the late 1970s, the United States began to observe parts of March as women’s history days and weeks, eventually nationally celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8. In 1980, President Carter declared there would be a National Women’s History Week celebrated annually in March. By 1986, individual states were celebrating a National Women’s History Month and in 1987 March officially became the month of celebration across the nation.
The emphasis on women’s history was sparked by a lack of attention focused on women in school education curriculums. In the early days of celebrating women’s history throughout March, volunteers would go into classrooms in public schools and give direct presentations about the additions to society that women have made throughout history. Today, the month long observance is much more multifaceted.
While historical presentations are prominently represented by national organizations, such as the Smithsonian Institute, the Library of Congress and the National Parks Organization, there has been a recent shift in ways of celebrating. In light of the current political moment the U.S. finds itself in, women have taken to filling the month of March with the celebration of what women are doing right now to change their history. The focus has shifted from the past to the present and the cultivation of the future historical footprint women will have.
In Maine, and Portland in particular, women have been joining forces to incite activism to change their paths. Over spring break, USM’s Portland campus was host to a film screening of the locally produced documentary, Maine Girls. The film focuses on a group of thirteen teenaged girls who live in South Portland and spent eight weeks learning about each other classroom. The group was brought together in light of the Trump administration’s anti-immigration stance and rhetoric that was felt to be targeted and unhelpful to the integration of immigrants in South Portland. The film is screened to promote awareness for the situation facing immigrants to Maine and the ways in which communication can facilitate growth and inclusivity. It is also a triumph of female empowerment beginning at a young age.
Maine women are also honoring Women’s History Month at universities across the state. At the University of Maine in Orono, the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies department has an organized calendar that consists of nineteen events that are open to students and individuals, not affiliated with the university. At USM, groups like Huskies for Reproductive Health and the administrative team in the Women and Gender Studies (WGS) department are continuing to host events throughout the month of March. As part of WGS’s celebration of Women’s History Month, Julia Serano, a transfeminist American author, will be hosting a discussion in Glickman Library titled, “Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive.”
This year Women’s History Month is also being celebrated with an increased show of activism, education and awareness for the current political moment and its relation to women. In light of the recent increase of open discussion about sexual assault and harassment through the #MeToo movement, Huskies for Reproductive Health, in partnership with the International Socialist Organization: Portland Branch and USM’s Queer Straight Alliance, held a panel discussion that focused on what identifying with the #MeToo movement was all about. Sharing resources, personal stories and campus processes for reporting sexually based offenses, the event facilitated a discussion about “what we can do as students to change our culture of campus rape beyond policy, and the culture of rape on college campuses across the country. Also included in this discussion will be interpersonal violence, relationship violence, coercion, etc. as this topic is so intricately tied to sexual violence,” according to the official event page.
WGS Coordinator, Cathy Barbarits, shared her thoughts on the increase of activism and importance of its ties to Women’s History Month.
“It feels to me like with the #metoo movement and activism of late that we are heading in a positive, intersectional feminist direction with our conversations as members of a movement. I think as the conversations keep happening, and people who are doing social justice work keep progressing in our understanding of systems of oppression to form increasingly collective goals, the ‘History Month’ thing will fall by the wayside. But I’m skipping ahead a bit,” Barbarits said. “In the meantime, I think that WHM is becoming a celebration of both our contributions of the past, of our hope for the future, and of our ability to affect change. Those things will not be lost even after feminism has done its job obliterating all forms of structural oppression.”
In recent years, USM associate professor Eileen Eagan worked with a group of students to create a Women’s History Trail throughout Portland. Starting as a website, the content was eventually pushed out through an app for smartphones. Funded by the Maine Economic Improvement Fund (MEIF), the project turned out a historical walking trail that visitors and locals can use to experience and educate themselves on the history of women in Portland. The significance of the trail is emphasized in a write up by Eagan, where she quotes Maine author Sarah Orne Jewett.
“Nothing you ever read about them can make you know them until you go there,” Jewett said. “Never mind people who tell you there is nothing to see in the place where people lived who interest you. You always find something of what made them the souls they were, and, at any rate, you see their sky and their earth.”
Following in the spirit represented by Eagan and Jewett, women in Maine celebrating Women’s History Month have a multitude of ways to experience their historical footprint. Visiting women’s historical sites, inciting activism and continuing a conversation about the significance of women are all ways which women are celebrating this year.