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History Of National Women’s History Month

By Nancy Foye-Cox

whmWhile serving as Deputy Director of the Minority Executive Placement Program at the International City Management Association (ICMA) and as a member of the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA), Nancy Foye-Cox was one of 45 women honored by the Smithsonian Institution on July 31, 1979. These women, representing the leadership of 37 national women’s organizations, were recognized for their participation in a special educational experiment, The Summer Institute in Women’s History for Leaders of National Women’s Organizations (Institute). Foye-Cox represented ASPA’s National Committee for Women in Public Administration and ICMA. 

The Institute was designed to provide the leadership of national women’s organizations with a deeper understanding of women’s largely unknown or forgotten accomplishments and it provided an opportunity to explore how women’s organizations throughout history have responded to the political and social issues of the day. It was sponsored by the Women’s Action Alliance with funding from the Lily Endowment Inc. and with the cooperation of the Smithsonian Institution and the Women’s History Program of Sarah Lawrence College.

Then director of the Women’s Action Alliance, Ruth Abram explained:

“To meet each new challenge and issue, women leaders have too often had to reinvent the wheel. An understanding of our heritage helps us to see ourselves as part of a community of women, and our struggles as a continuation of the struggles as a continuation of the struggles of women before us. As each participant takes a new love of her own history back to her organization, it will inform her judgments in the months and years of service before her. So we must seek to expand this awareness of women in history even more.”

The participants were in retreat on the campus of Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. from July 14 through July 29, 1979. Three seminars examined the roles women played in the family, the economy and in community and political life. Students worked in small groups to develop projects that would be used by their own organization.

Dr. Gerda Lerner, Director of the Institute and then co-director of the Women’s Studies Program at Sarah Lawrence College, explained:

“We created a genuine feminist community for two weeks, and informality, free expression, sharing of experience and resolution of conflicts was encouraged. In this way, we sought to provide a uniquely valuable and useful model educational experience for adult women of widely differing educational levels, experience and backgrounds.”

The Women’s Action Alliance selected participants from among candidates nominated by more than 100 organizations. Other participants included representatives of such organizations as the Coalition of Labor Union Women, the National Women’s Conference Continuing Committee, the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, Girl Scouts of the USA, the National Council of Negro Women, the National Women’s Political Caucus, Comision Femenil Mexicana Nacional Inc. and Church Women United.

In addition to Dr. Lerner (deceased 2013), then president-elect of the Organization of American Historians, the Institute faculty included Amy Swerdlow (deceased 2013) and Alice Kessler-Harris, who is now faculty at Columbia University. Swerdlow was then director of the American Historical Association’s Institutes for Women’s History in the Secondary Schools and a history instructor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Kessler-Harris was then co-director of the Center for the Study of Work and Leisure at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

Other than faculty, graduate student participants were: Carole Artigiani, Pam Elam, Bonnie Johnson and Peggy Pascoe.

Women’s organizations participants included: Ruth Abram, Barbra Apfelbaum, Yolanda Bako, Matilda Black Bear, Betsy Brinson, Rev. Mary Tyler Browne, Charlotte Callahan, Cristine Candela Cronin, Marjorie Bell Chambers, Bettye Collier Thomas, Brenda Daniels-Eichelberger, Shirley Davis, Frances Doughty, Kitty Endres, Kris Howard, Kathryn Johnson, Connie Kopelov, Phyllis Lefkowitz, Judy Lerner, Lora Liss, Cynthia Little, Molly Murphy MacGregor, Ruth S. Meyers, Sister Maureen McCormack SL, Gracia Molina de Pick, Char Mollison, Martha May Newsom, Barbara Omolade, Ilene Olansky, Deborah Pearlman, Gayle Porter, Rosemary Quesada-Weiner, Melanie Graves Rios, Edythe Rosenfield, Vivian Scheinmann, Zerita Walther, Kay Whitlock Hunter and Marsha Zakowski.

In 1978, the Education Task Force of the Sonoma County, Calif. Commission on the Status of Women began a “Women’s History Week” celebration. The week was chosen to coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8, which had been celebrated in Europe since 1911.

In 1980, Molly Murphy MacGregor co-founded the National Women’s History Project. The mission is to recognize and celebrate the diverse and historic accomplishments of women by providing information and educational materials and programs. At the 25th anniversary Institute reunion at Sarah Lawrence in 2004, MacGregor recounted:

“I had sent the Women’s Action Alliance copies of the curriculum and organizing guides and commemorative posters we had designed for Women’s History Week in Sonoma County, Calif. My primary goal in attending was to get the Women’s History Institute to embrace a National Women’s History Week. It was an easy win. I don’t remember any opposition.”

“The difficulty came later as we worked to get a Congressional Resolution. Pam Elam and Peggy Pascoe did much of the coordination and lobbying. There was early success with the governors of each state, because participants returned to their states and asked their governors to declare Women’s History Week. Someone or some group got the ear of the White House, because I received a call from Sarah Weddington – President Jimmy Carter’s assistant for women’s affairs. She told me that the President was going to issue a Presidential Proclamation calling on the American people to pause and remember the tremendous contributions of American women. He issued that Presidential Proclamation in 1980 and every president since has done the same.”

As a result of their experience, the 52 Institute participants called for the implementation of National Women’s History Week to focus on the role of women in American history. In 1980, Foye-Cox and Dr. Bettye Thomas co-founded National Women’s History Week in the District of Columbia. In 1982, she founded the first Florida celebration in Miami.

Three years later, the United States Congress passed a resolution establishing National Women’s History Week. Co-sponsors of the resolution, demonstrating bipartisan support, were Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and then Congresswoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.).

In 1987, at the request of the National Women’s History Project, Congress expanded the week to a month. Congress has issued a resolution every year since then for National Women’s History Month. The sitting U.S. President now issues an annual proclamation.


Author: Nancy Foye-Cox currently serves on ASPA’s National Council (2012-2015) and is a national co-founder of National Women’s History Month and Week.

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