The Daily Illini

Women’s History Month lacks visibility on campus


As the calendar flips from the month of candy hearts and valentines, President’s Day and Black History to the month of Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day, dreaded midterms and the long-anticipated spring break, students may not realize that March has been recognized for more than 100 years as Women’s History Month. And, maybe that limited awareness has to do with the lack of University publicity surrounding the month-long holiday.

In recent years, Jacque Kahn, academic adviser and administrative coordinator in Gender and Women Studies, said that she has seen a decline in the amount of programming implemented to celebrate Women’s History Month.

Although the Women’s Resource Center will continue to offer women-supportive events during March, the International Women’s Day Banquet held in previous years will not take place this year, but the center will host a screening of the film “Girl Rising.” The cancellation of the banquet is due partially to what Rachel Storm, assistant director of the Women’s Resource Center, called a “saturation” of Women’s History Month programming by other departments in the University community. However, the Gender and Women’s Studies Department also does not offer any programming specific to the commemoration of this year’s Women’s History Month or International Women’s Day on March 8. A cultural programming fund in Gender and Women’s Studies used to support posters and advertisements, but Kahn said that as focuses have shifted within faculty and student interests, so has the amount of attention surrounding Women’s History Month. 

She said that other University and student groups used to step forward, but as time went by, she found less and less units offering events for women’s history, and at some point didn’t have anything to put on the posters.

“(Women’s History Month) is still important, but I think that it’s not something our department wants to focus our time and energy on right now, and it is not where the scholarship is right now,” Kahn explained.

In fact, within this month, the Gender and Women’s History Symposium seems to be the only major event scheduled to specifically address March as Women’s History Month.

Perhaps, said both Kahn and Storm, it is because the major campus units that work with gender issues are immersed in them for 11 other months out of the year.

Or maybe it is the fact that Kahn said “those months are not for those who inhabit those identities; it’s for those who don’t think about them.”

Additionally, Deirdre Ruscitti, graduate student in History and co-chair of the symposium, said people tend to lump women into an one over-arching category, neglecting the ways in which they are complex. 

Kahn said the work of early feminists centered on bringing women back into history and literature and to “recover what had been left out.” While this effort is not done completely, the focus has shifted to studying gender as a question of identity, the intersections between gender and race, gender and class, and gender and ethnicity.

That’s one of the reasons why it is fitting that the Gender and Women’s History Symposium, which ran Feb. 27 to March 1, falls between Black History Month and Women’s History Month, Ruscitti said.

“One of the things we’ve tried to promote a lot is intersectionality — so paying attention not only to gender but also to race within feminism,” she said. 

Calling it a “symbolic way to bring together the two of them,” Ruscitti said that it is important to be conscious of the ways that feminism and the study of women have excluded demographics and to work toward a more comprehensive idea of what it means to study women’s history.

“Feminism doesn’t mean anything if people are blocked off because they feel that their concerns aren’t being heard,” she said.

And, while the University’s Women’s History Month programming may not be as visible as in previous years, Ruscitti said she believes history is still an important part of understanding the roots of the shifts in feminist study and figuring out how to move forward.

“So much of how we act and the social constraints we feel (come from somewhere),” Ruscitti said. “I think by studying history we get a richer idea of who we are and why we are the way we are. When we understand all the years that have gone into shaping the forces that make us who we are … I don’t think that’s something we get by studying just the present.”

It is when feminism is defined by a narrow set of issues, such as women’s suffrage or jobs outside the home, that a false illusion of progress can distract from the fact that many different kinds of oppression still face women today, Storm said. 

However, it is still relevant to study these issues today, she said. Discrepancies in pay and the positions available to women, mass incarceration, violence against women of color, reproductive rights and violence against migrant women are just a few of the prevailing struggles for women-identified individuals, Storm said.

“If you came up in the public education system in the United States, it’s very likely that the stories that you’ve heard were primarily from able-bodied, cisgendered, white men who are relatively middle class,” Storm said. “There’s definitely a need to broaden whose stories are told during Women’s History Month.”

Maggie can be reached at [email protected]

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