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The Complicated Pasts of 6 Trailblazing Women

March 27, 2018 in History

By Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

Self-made millionaire Sarah Breedlove, better known as Madam C.J. Walker. (Credit: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

“Well-behaved women seldom make history,” wrote Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich memorably in 1976. She argued that “ordinary” women who don’t happen to marry future presidents…or lead the way to be the first in their fields…or get burned at the stake are rarely remembered by History with a capital H.

But when it comes to the handful of extraordinary, accomplished women who routinely get remembered during Women’s History Month, K-12 curricula or popular celebrations rarely go deeper than a two-dimensional, sanitized version of their lives. Yet it is these women’s more complicated—and occasionally unflattering—pasts that can help us more realistically and effectively imagine the future.

Not only are those nuanced stories more accurate; they’re also usually far more interesting.

Take the founding of national Women’s History Month, which itself has a juicy back story. According to official accounts, a small passionate group of scholars and activists, inspired that Sonoma, California honored the female half of the population with a Women’s History Week, traveled to Washington in the summer of 1979 to convince President Jimmy Carter—successfully—to expand that regional celebration into a national one. The group had just concluded a summer women’s history institute at Sarah Lawrence College, and its founder Gerda Lerner, a pioneering figure in the field, later detailed the historic moment in her memoir.

But that wasn’t the whole story, by a longshot. According to historian Alice Kessler-Harris, one of the institute’s organizers, the Sarah Lawrence workshop had actually been funded, in part, by the Lilly Endowment, the charitable arm of the drug company that had knowingly marketed DES, a synthetic estrogen that caused cancer and infertility in women. Disturbed by what they saw as “guilt money,” one faction of the group demanded the scholars and activists return the funds and publicly denounce the pharmaceutical giant. Ultimately Lerner and others kept the Lilly funds—and kept quiet—spending the money to travel to Washington and successfully lobby for the presidential declaration of the first national Women’s History Week. Seven years later, Congress declared March as National Women’s History Month in perpetuity. Knowing how this group that included union leaders, gay liberation activists, Girl Scouts, and academics navigated these differences, as well as a major ethical dilemma, provides a clearer picture of the past and can inspire activists of the present in a moment when the women’s movement has never been more diverse.

It’s a good example of how, when …read more


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