Women’s History Month—and NMWA—after 25 Years

Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman’s Party, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Every month is spent celebrating women’s history at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, but this year’s annual celebration takes on special importance. This March marks the 25th anniversary of Women’s History Month and coincides with NMWA’s own 25th anniversary celebration. It is no coincidence that these two landmark occasions were conceived in the same year. By 1987, the debate over women’s rights had reached a critical level of acceptance. The establishment of NMWA and Women’s History Month responded to the political conversations of the day, reflecting the widespread desire to recognize women in history and culture.

Barbara Bush and Wilhelmina Cole Holladay at the 1987 NMWA opening.

In 1978, the Education Task Force of the Sonoma County (California) Commission on the Status of Women sought to remedy the lack of public consciousness surrounding women’s history. They established the week of March 8 as the first annual “Women’s History Week.” The celebration was met by enthusiasm and by 1979, the seeds for a national decree were planted.

In February 1980, the groups of women working toward national recognition realized their dream with President Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Proclamation declaring the week of March 8, 1980 as National Women’s History Week:

“From the first settlers who came to our shores, from the first American Indian families who befriended them, men and women have worked together to build this nation. Too often the women were unsung and sometimes their contributions went unnoticed. But the achievements, leadership, courage, strength and love of the women who built America was as vital as that of the men whose names we know so well.”

The movement gradually gained momentum and by 1986, 14 states had dedicated March to Women’s History Month, prompting the 1987 congressional decision to establish the celebration in perpetuity.

Installation of Chakaia Booker’s sculpture in the New York Avenue Sculpture Project.

This year’s theme, “Women’s Education—Women’s Empowerment,” is near to NMWA’s cause and heart. NMWA’s 25th anniversary exhibition, Royalists to Romantics: Women Artists from the Louvre, Versailles, and Other French National Collections, explores the role of women’s education in great depth. The female artists featured were not granted the same arts education as their male counterparts. They were barred from studying the nude figure, which inhibited them from taking on history painting, then considered the highest genre. The exhibition explores the alternative avenues women in the 18th and 19th centuries travelled while refining their artistic skills and building audiences for their work.

Take part in Women’s History Month this March with a visit to the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Royalists to Romantics: Women Artists from the Louvre, Versailles, and Other French National Collections is on view through July 29, 2012. Also join us on March 8, widely celebrated as International Women’s Day, 10 a.m.–3 p.m. for the New York Avenue Sculpture Project Dedication and March 9 for the opening of R(ad)ical Love: Sister Mary Corita on view through July 15, 2012. For more information, visit www.nmwa.org. To learn more about Women’s History Month, visit www.nwhp.org.

—Chelsea Beroza is the publications and communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.