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Episode 114: The ongoing history of Women’s History Month

Kaylie Sirovy dives into the creation of Women’s History Month and how University of Minnesota students and faculty acknowledge it today.

KAYLIE SIROVY: Hello everyone and welcome back to In The Know. You might be wondering who I am. My name is Kaylie Sirovy and I am a new reporter to this podcast. Super excited to share this with all of you.

March is Women’s History month, a month meant to empower women of all ages.

To understand a part of its history, I met with Zornitsa Keremidchieva, a professor in communication studies. She studies the experiences of immigrant women, of women in politics, and the organization of women here in the United States. According to her, Women’s History Day, and in turn Month, originates outside the United States.

ZORNITSA KEREMIDCHIEVA: The history is, well, well documented. We know that the proposal came from a socialist, German socialist, Clara Zetkin in 1910, and then it was picked up by Russian women in 1917, which started the Bolshevik Revolution. So it actually has a foreign origin. It did not originate in the United States; it originated with the idea of International Women’s Day.

SIROVY: According to Keremidchieva, Women’s Day was originally on Feb. 27, but moved to March 8 to coincide with Russia’s conversion to the Gregorian calendar the world uses today.
Keremidchieva explains that domestically, the U.S. wanted to also celebrate Women’s Day, but had some difficulty.

KEREMIDCHIEVA: There was some kind of discussion about how to both import the idea, but at the same time to distance ourselves from what was considered to be a tricky legacy of the socialist and communist movements from around the world. So during the Cold War, it was not easy to promote International Women’s Day. And so what, uh, women here proposed instead was international, uh, week and then month. And so Jimmy Carter in 1980 was the first president to announce the idea of Women’s History Month in the United States. And seven years later, congress made that a federal holiday, or a federal commemoration, not necessarily a holiday, but commemoration. And so it took off from there.

SIROVY: Today, schools, universities, and companies across the country take this time to recognize and remember the contributions of women. The University of Minnesota takes this opportunity to bring in speakers and hold events to keep the conversation going.

KEREMIDCHIEVA: It is a world in miniature. And so when students come to us from all walks of life, from all kinds of circumstances, each of them brings something that is a spark, something that is interesting, something that is valuable, and the sooner they recognize that is true of everybody around them, the more they can really, really, uh, grow with the wealth that is around them.

SIROVY: But what about right here in Minneapolis? What do people on campus have to say about this opportunity for women’s equality? And what do they say now?

TRACEY DEUTSCH: The University of Minnesota actually, interestingly, also has an important place in this. Um, we were one of the first universities to hire a full tenured faculty member in women’s history. We did that in the early 1970s. And also, actually one of the first places to create a women’s studies program, and we are still one of the only gender and women’s studies programs in the country to grant a Ph.D., to have a graduate program. Many of them don’t.

These programs are often seen as marginal and precarious, and, and yet they’re at the heart of our ability to do things like celebrate Women’s History Month. Gender, women and sexuality studies remains a really celebrated department, but also a very small department. We have to continue to claim them and support them and really acknowledge the importance of these spaces for, um, critical perspectives on women, gender and sexuality.

SIROVY: That was Tracey Deutsch, a history professor on campus who teaches, researches and writes about issues around gender, sexuality and women’s history, particularly, the woman’s relationship to the economy and capitalism.

DEUTSCH: So, I think that March is a significant month for Women’s History Month because it coincides with International Women’s Day, um, which is a very long standing holiday all around the world, celebrating women and the work that has traditionally been assigned to people who identify as female.

So, March makes a lot of sense for Women’s History Month, and one thing I appreciate about Women’s History Month is how it, um, aligns struggles in the U.S. to bring visibility to women with international struggles. It really helps us to kind of situate ourselves in the world. Um, and I feel like there are, I feel like Women’s History Month has been overall a really productive site from which to think and publicize and make visible women’s history.

SIROVY: According to Professor Deutsch, it is not perfect, but it opens up topics previously left undiscussed.

DEUTSCH: There’s always the risk that when you assign a particular month to a particular group, that that’s gonna restrict the conversation, right. So, when it’s April, does that mean we don’t have to talk about women’s history? My experience is that that hasn’t happened because Women’s History Month, I wanna say like, um, Black History Month in February and many other months that have been designated to lift up different marginalized groups, it has the effect of raising larger questions and making visible larger stories that then stick with people all throughout the year.

SIROVY: Both Deutsch and Keremidchieva agree that students are essential for uplifting movements. Izzy Laderman, a second-year history major, explains what it means for her to recognize women’s history.

IZZY LADERMAN: I think learning women’s history and just history in general and looking at it through an intersectional lens is so important no matter what subject you are going into because no matter what subject, even if it’s something like crazy sciencey, like astrophysics, has still been impacted by history. And history has influenced and changed the way that subject is treated, the way that it’s taught, the way that the person who is learning it experiences that subject, no matter what history is impacting that. And learning history and women’s history and Black history and all of that can help you understand your subject at a much deeper level.

SIROVY: Do you feel the University is doing enough to recognize women’s accomplishments and give them enough support?

LADERMAN: So, I definitely think that it’s a mix of both good and bad, just because the University is both a system and made up of individuals, and there are certainly amazing individuals doing amazing work to uplift women. But the system as a whole is still part of a system of education that is not made for people who don’t hold dominant societal positions.

SIROVY: According to Keremidchieva and Deutsch, even the University of Minnesota has some room for improvement.

KEREMIDCHIEVA: One can say that we can always do more of it, but in some sense what we also want to do is make sure that it’s an organic, uh, process. That it is a process that invites participation from different, uh, groups on campus that students, uh, have their ways of pitching in. So, can archivists, so can librarians, so can, uh, faculty members, so can advisors. So can anybody who, in one way or another, has a part of this community and making this community be of the kind of public service and public mission that we have as a University.

DEUTSCH: I think we should hire a dozen women’s historians. Um, no, I do think that there, um, can be a lot of work in integrating students and their interests around gender and sexuality into University initiatives and University programming and also into curriculum. That’s something I’m really struck by when I teach.

And also when I talk to faculty from across the country, students often have very, um, clear needs to know things around gender and sexual discrimination and also the possibilities for equality. But there’s not always a way for them to influence curriculum or programming in a direct way, and that’s one way I think that universities could really, um, expand and embed the significance of these initiatives and programs is to really create and support the ability of students to get knowledge and information that they need around gender and sexuality.

SIROVY: As enrollment of female-identifying students rises at the U, Keremidchieva says that more programs should seek to include them and support them.

KEREMIDCHIEVA: The idea of making that institution habitable and meaningful to them and giving some perspective on what their education, um, can do for them is really important. So there’s lots of reasons to keep this tradition going.

If you want to learn more about these conversations and their histories, Professor Deutsch is teaching a class next spring in 2024 about modern women’s history.

This episode was written by Kaylie Sirovy and produced by Abbey Machtig and Alberto Gomez. As always, we really appreciate you listening in. Feel free to email us at [email protected] with comments or questions. I’m Kaylie Sirovy, and this is In the Know.

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