March means many things—an end to winter, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, and most importantly, Women’s History Month. Oftentimes, it is a celebration that goes largely unremarked in university settings, though we all remember our elementary schools’ attempts of recognizing the history of women. We applauded the great deeds of American female figures, such as suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Perhaps you and your classmates read Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech, or quoted Abigail Adams’ request for the Founding Fathers to “Remember the Ladies” (who they subsequently forgot). Maybe you posed for a Rosie the Riveter flex with some friends in the spirit of womanhood. In the 21st century, we celebrate an even broader spectrum of women—from transgender political advocate Caitlyn Jenner to Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black, Asian American, and female to hold this position.
So many amazing women have accomplished feats previously deemed too “unladylike” for the fairer sex. It’s tempting to point to the female icons and male feminists of the modern day and triumphantly claim, “We’ve done it! Women and men are equal now!” I mean, Harry Styles was featured in a dress on the cover of Vogue! We’ve reached gender equality, haven’t we?
Unfortunately, the Women's History we celebrate isn’t the history of women—not a complete history, at least. Professor Heather J. Sharkey, a historian in Penn's department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, has dedicated herself to increasing female Penn staff members' representation on Wikipedia. In March of 2020, Professor Sharkey organized a Wikithon where students and staff members collaborated to write Wikipedia articles on female contributors to the Penn Museum. According to Professor Sharkey, only 17% of biographies in English on Wikipedia feature women. "Women constitute about half of the population," Professor Sharkey says while discussing the significance of female voices. "The problem of silencing them is that you miss out on the perspectives they bring."
The national celebration of Women's History Month has only been practiced since 1987. That means that we have been actively recognizing women’s accomplishments for less than four decades, an infinitesimal amount of time in comparison to the 12,000 years of patriarchy that have persisted. Some people question why we have these formal recognitions of marginalized groups, such as Black History Month and Women's History Month. Though at times it may seem like we have achieved equality, it's important to recognize the struggle it has taken to get to where we are now, and how much further we have yet to go.
"All of these markers, like Black [and Women's] History Month, they provide us with an opportunity to reflect—that's mostly what it is," Professor Sharkey says regarding the significance of Women's History Month. "It's an opportunity for us to say, 'oh, here's this event, let's see what we missed so far.'"
While we’re fawning over queens like Beyoncé and raising our glasses to feminism with P!nk, we forget that there are millions of female voices who have never had a chance to be heard. Take antiquity—Ancient Greece and Rome. Life for women during that era was enveloped in rape culture: a culture in which, if she was lucky, a woman was sold off into marriage at age fourteen to a thirty–something year old man. If she wasn’t lucky, she was enslaved and used for sexual favors by the master of the house. Consider China—a history of women whose worth, up until the 19th century, was decided by the size of her feet after years of painful foot binding.
Perhaps look at the religious virgin motif that paradoxically coincides with the expectation of all women assuming mother roles. Christianity’s Virgin Mary, in particular, provided the backbone for the ideal woman for nearly two millennia (for instance, the state Virginia was named not after Queen Elizabeth’s fiery personality, but her supposed chastity). Many religious extremists limit the political rights of women, whether it be in the name of the Bible, the Qur'an, the Torah, tradition, or explicit sexism. After all, patriarchy provides the bedrock for all mainstream faiths.
The history of women is still evolving, for both the good and the bad. Yes, in America, women are millionaires, pilots, professionals, stay–at–home mothers, doctors, teachers, and politicians. But women in America are also struggling. On average, women make $0.82 to a white man’s $1, with Latinx women at the bottom earning $0.56 for every white man’s dollar. Almost one in five women have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime, in comparison to one in 71 men. And too often, even after the peak of the #MeToo Movement, women are the ones blamed and shamed for being sexually assaulted. Society’s response to women who report, especially those from impoverished and marginalized communities, is a collective “She was asking for it.”
Women in the United States aren’t the only ones struggling in the 21st century. Despite the fact that the U.S. still has a long journey toward equality, many other countries haven’t even stepped up to the plate in combating systemic sexism. Today, women in Iran need permission from their husbands to travel abroad. If you are a woman from Chad, there is an 86% chance that you are illiterate. For the women of India’s Kanjarbhat community, wedding night virginity tests are custom; failure to pass ensures not only marriage annulment, but a beating and exclusion from her community. In Jordan, a woman is allowed to be murdered under the law if it is in the name of "honor." And all over the world, millions of women are raped, abused, and sex trafficked; no statistic can represent the magnitude of such facts, being that so many cases are dismissed or go unreported.
Women’s history encompasses more than the few female figures recognized in social studies textbooks and Wikipedia articles—it’s half of humanity, a half that has repeatedly been used, abused and forced into silence. "Why is it useful to have Women's History Month?" Professor Sharkey says. "Because a lot of times, we don't even realize [what] we haven't covered."
Now, more than ever, it's important for all of us to reflect on the past, present, and future of women's history. As March concludes, make a conscious effort to not only celebrate the known women of history, but also the unknown women—they're listening.