We are two decades into the 21st century, and there are still women and girls without rights in many parts of the world. In our country, abortion and divorce rights are curtailed, and high rates of gender-based violence only seem to be increasing. If these are not enough reasons to continue to stand up for women, I don’t know what would be.

In the United States, each year, March is designated Women’s History Month by presidential proclamation. And while many perceive it as an opportunity to honor women’s contributions to American history, it’s about much more than that.

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“During Women’s History Month, we celebrate the courageous women who have helped our Nation build a fairer, more just society,” President Joe Biden wrote in the 2024 proclamation. “Throughout history, the vision and achievements of powerful women have strengthened our Nation and opened the doors of opportunity wider for all of us.”

“Despite the progress that these visionaries have achieved, there is more work ahead to knock down the barriers that stand in the way of women and girls realizing their full potential,” he added.

Perhaps on this, we can agree.

A Brief History of Women’s History Month

Image courtesy of the National Women’s History Alliance.

Women’s History Month began in 1978 as a local celebration in Santa Rosa, California. According to the National Women’s History Museum, the Education Task Force of the Sonoma County (California) Commission on the Status of Women planned and executed a “Women’s History Week” celebration.

Organizers chose the week of March 8 to coincide with International Women’s Day. The movement spread across the country, and other communities initiated their Women’s History Week celebrations the following year.

Several women’s groups and historians successfully lobbied for national recognition two years later. In February 1980, President Jimmy Carter issued the first Presidential Proclamation declaring the week of March 8, 1980, National Women’s History Week.

Subsequent Presidents continued to proclaim National Women’s History Week in March until 1987, when Congress passed Public Law 100-9, designating March as “Women’s History Month.” 

Between 1988 and 1994, Congress passed additional resolutions requesting and authorizing the President to proclaim March each year as Women’s History Month. Since 1995, each President has issued an annual proclamation designating March as “Women’s History Month.”

However, despite efforts to recognize the importance of women in history, our rights continue to be threatened every single day.

The State of Women’s Rights in the U.S.

Nurses wearing sashes reading “Votes for Women” demonstrated in New York in 1913.
Ken Florey Suffrage Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Since Susan B. Anthony was arrested for attempting to vote in 1872, there have been many advances in terms of gender equality in the United States. However, it seems that for every step forward, we take five steps back.

In 1890, Wyoming gave women the right to vote in all elections. However, nearly 20 years later, the Supreme Court upheld Oregon’s 10-hour workday for women. The protective legislation implied that women were “physically weak.”

During the first decades of the 20th century, women tried to establish contraceptive clinics and were arrested. And only in 1920 did we achieve the real right to vote. Meanwhile, women had no access to property without their husbands’ signatures.

In 1963, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act. However, more than 60 years later, women still earn 82 cents for every dollar a man earns. Latina women earn only 52 cents.

In 1973, the Roe v. Wade decision had the Supreme Court declare that the Constitution protected a woman’s right to terminate an early pregnancy. Nearly 50 years later, the same Supreme Court reversed the decision, and now millions of women are putting their lives at risk for lack of reproductive health care.

We cannot help but wonder: Do women really have rights?

Furthermore, has the fight for women’s rights been truly inclusive?

Women march down Fifth Avenue in New York during a Women’s Equality March on Aug. 26, 1970. Source: Getty.

If it has taken white women centuries to gain minimal rights, the situation for women of color and transgender women is another story.

After the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, women of color still could not vote. Not because the Constitution did not provide for it but because they faced racial and ethnic discrimination. Often, they were deterred from voting even through violence.

Meanwhile, women like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin, and Jovita Idár fought for the right to vote for ALL women.

Only with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were all people of color granted full voting rights.

And that is because the struggle for women’s rights is not comprehensive if it is not intersectional. As long as black women, brown women, indigenous women, and members of the LGBTQ community have no rights, can we really celebrate anything?

Another example of this inequality has been access to reproductive health care. While white women with money could take a weekend trip to Puerto Rico to stop their pregnancies, women of color, who earned much less, suffered the consequences twice over.

Women of color faced forced sterilizations, unsafe contraceptives, and failed labor reforms.

Simply put, Women’s History Month is not a celebration. It is a call to keep up the fight

The Women’s March in 2017 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Credit: Fibonacci Blue/Flickr.

Today, in March 2022, girls and young women are forced to carry their pregnancies to term in many states across the country, even if they are victims of rape and incest. Transgender women continue to be attacked and do not even have the right to use public restrooms, and access to equal pay seems to be a dream that is slipping through our fingers.

Latinas, in particular, are the country’s biggest economic engine. Yet, they continue to face barriers to access financing. Latinas continue to struggle for fair representation in all industries, yet we continue to be stereotyped and judged by our origins. One in three women experience some form of physical violence by an intimate partner, and we continue to earn far less for twice the effort.

So, this March — and every month, every year — we celebrate how far we have come. But we do not forget how far we still have to go.