In a letter to her husband John Adams in the momentous spring of 1776, as the Continental Congress was drafting its Declaration of Independence from the British crown, Abigail Adams (1744-1818) urged him and his fellow delegates to “remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.” She continued, “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
Women would not gain the right to vote in the United States for nearly 150 years, but the words of Abigail Adams clearly gave voice to the hopes and dreams of half the population. Agitation for women’s rights continued through the growth of the early American republic, culminating in the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. Declaring that “all men and women are created equal,” Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), and the other organizers proclaimed feminist principles which would resonate through the remainder of the 19th century.
This was a period in which women were routinely denied the rights to vote, run for public office, own businesses or property, testify in court, preach, serve in the armed forces or on juries, study science and mathematics, practice law or medicine, attend university, sue for divorce, or retain custody of their own children. Women were segregated as the “fairer sex” and minimized as fit for little more than marriage and motherhood. Those women who pursued economic independence were criticized as being in “violation of nature.” Even fashion kept women caged. The corset became a metaphor for their social, political, and economic confinement.
The fight for women’s suffrage built on earlier movements for temperance, asylum reform, an end to child labor, and the abolition of slavery. The 18th and 19th Amendments in 1920 were seen as twin victories for American women and inaugurated a decade in which “flappers,” film stars, and writers began to challenge sexist conventions. Hairstyles and dresses shortened. Women began to vote, drive, and work outside the home. Health educator Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) called for free and readily available contraception. “Birth control,” she argued, was a first step in empowering women to take control of their own lives.
World War II provided manufacturing job opportunities for “Rosie the Riveter” and raised expectations for a larger role in postwar society. The fear and conservatism of the early Cold War years, however, relegated many women to “the cult of domesticity” fed by the record pregnancy rates of the “Baby Boom.” Birth control was not readily available, women were discouraged from working outside the home, and even the new credit cards driving consumer spending were issued in the husband’s name only. Women who had built the “Arsenal of Democracy” were now expected to be content with changing diapers and hosting Tupperware parties in pumps and nail polish.
Widespread discontent led to action. The 1963 publication of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1921-2006) gave new impetus to a resurgent movement for full equality. Three years later Friedan helped to organize the National Organization for Women (NOW). In 1968 “the pill” and other birth control methods received FDA approval. Four years later pioneering journalist Gloria Steinem co-founded Ms. magazine and became one of the most well-recognized voices of the new feminism. Roe v. Wade the following year was seen by many as a major victory in the fight for women’s reproductive rights.
By the late 1970s, local school districts and universities began organizing Women’s History Week programs around International Women’s Day on March 8. President Jimmy Carter gave official approval to the observance in 1980, and within six years, fourteen states had declared March to be Women’s History Month. Congress followed suit in 1987. The following years saw an incremental increase in attention to women’s history. Feminist scholars began publishing more books and articles on the contributions of women to the nation’s development. Many dubbed this new academic emphasis “herstory.”
Change was slow but steady. More women were elected to public office. Changes in family law allowed women to sue for divorce. Child support and domestic violence laws were strengthened. Women’s shelters and birth control clinics proliferated. NOW and other groups called for equal pay and opportunity and an end to chauvinist stereotypes in entertainment and the media. LGBT women began to come out to their friends, families, and employers. The enrollment of women in graduate and professional programs increased. Many religious denominations began ordaining female clergy.
A major issue remained the need for a safe and fair workplace. The testimony of legal scholar Anita Hill before a Senate confirmation hearing in 1991 led to the implementation of sexual harassment laws throughout the country. The #MeToo movement which began on social media in 2006 went viral eleven years later and encouraged the victims of sexual intimidation and violence to speak out. The Women’s March on January 21, 2017 included more than five million participants across the nation and seven million others worldwide, inaugurating an annual tradition which continues to the present day.
Women now run Fortune 500 companies and continue to shape the world economy. Some have reached the ranks of general and admiral in the armed forces. They have served as mayors, governors, county sheriffs, judges, and college presidents. From pioneering Congresswoman Jeanette Rankin (1880-1973) to 2016 Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, women have stepped forward in leadership roles in ever greater numbers. Four have served as justices on the United States Supreme Court. More than 100 women currently serve in Congress, representing nearly a quarter of the total membership.
March is also Irish American Heritage Month, first recognized in 1991 after more than two centuries of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations throughout the country. One in ten Americans have Irish heritage. The first large group of newcomers to settle in the new United States who were not Anglo-Saxon Protestants, their trials and triumphs set the tone for the experiences of subsequent immigrants. Nearly five million Irish came to America between 1820 and 1930, including 17-year-old Annie Moore (1874-1924), the first arrival to the new federal immigration station at Ellis Island, New York.
This connection between the Irish and Women’s History Month is significant. Irish women came to the United States in larger numbers and proportions than their counterparts in other immigrant groups. Thousands came alone or unaccompanied by men. Many found work as domestic servants and used their new economic resources to help relatives in Ireland and finance homes, schools, churches, and hospitals across America. Others like Mary Harris “Mother” Jones (1837-1930) and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890-1964) became powerful voices for the rights of labor.
Throughout the 19th century, Irish-speaking Catholic immigrants were seen by nativists as members of a separate and inferior “race.” Segregated into slums, they were offered only the most dangerous and menial of jobs. Mainstream politicians and newspapers routinely fanned the flames of prejudice and hatred. Yet the hurtful ethnic stereotypes and signs reading “No Irish Need Apply” failed to stymie their success. By 1900, their descendants were policing America’s cities, managing America’s taverns and hotels, editing America’s newspapers, and building America’s industry.
Many became involved in local politics. Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy’s election to the White House in 1960 was celebrated in Irish (and non-Irish) Catholic communities across the nation and the world. He was preceded and followed by several other Presidents of Protestant Scots-Irish heritage, including Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Bill Clinton. Irish music and folklore shaped American popular culture and led to the development of bluegrass, country, and rock and roll. The Irish language contributed to the development of American English.
My own paternal ancestors participated in this dramatic story. Escaping famine in western Ireland aboard disease-ridden “coffin ships” to Canada in the 1840s, they first made their way to Chicago and later purchased land in western Wisconsin. By the time of his death in 1905, my Irish-born great-great-grandfather left a thriving wheat farm of 400 acres in Oregon’s Willamette Valley to his American-born son. My grandfather was born there in 1900 and became the first in the family to graduate from college. My father was the first to earn a doctoral degree. I was the first to become an author and share the family history online.
Irish Americans have fought and died in all of America’s wars, from the Revolution to Iraq and Afghanistan. As many as 200,000 served on both sides of the Civil War, most famously Meagher’s Brigade of the Union Army of the Potomac. New generations rose above poverty and prejudice to run school districts and universities, lead successful companies, and revolutionize American journalism and literature. The writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953), Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964), Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949), and many others are now considered modern literary classics.
Take advantage of this rich and varied material in your classroom. Activities can include biographical profiles, music and costume, holiday celebrations, and maps tracking the growth of immigrant communities. A focus on female political leaders can highlight important and often overlooked issues from the communities they represent. Both women’s history in general and Irish American history in particular feature a succession of inspiring orators. Reading famous speeches aloud and analyzing their content through group discussions and written assignments can bring alive core themes of the American experience.
The importance of women’s history extends far beyond the classroom. The battle against sexism must begin early, both at home and in school. Conditioning girls and young women to see themselves as powerful and capable is important in a society with a long history of shaming, minimizing, abuse, and discrimination. Despite the many legal gains of recent decades, sexist attitudes still linger in both public and private life. Much remains to be done to achieve equal pay and opportunity. Learning about the heroines of the past helps to strengthen self-esteem and build confidence in the present. Herstory is vital to a full understanding of history.
Copyright (c) 2020 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.
To visit my home page, go to torinfinney.com.