Did you know that in addition to being a thank-you-God deliverance from February, March is also National Women’s History Month?
Don’t feel bad if you didn’t. Most Americans don’t know it. If you snickered and said something like, “Oh, right, like we ne-e-e-ed a month for women,” give yourself a hug for acknowledging that we’ve made astonishing gains in recent years. That’s what you meant, right?
The U.S. Census Bureau offers glimpses into the state of today’s American woman: About 82.8 million are mothers, and 72 million hold paying jobs. Nearly 117,000 own businesses worth $1 million or more. We still earn only 77 cents for every $1 earned by men, but we outnumber men in population, longevity and college degrees.
National Women’s History Month used to be an annual wake-up call over how history books had dumped most women in our country’s story. When I was a kid, our history books depicted men founding countries, waging wars and wiping out indigenous populations. Women were just along for the ride, birthin’ babies, making soap and dangling from gallows for our wicked, witch-crafty ways. Sometimes Pocahontas, Madame Curie and Annie Oakley made appearances. So did Lizzie Borden, just to drive home how bat-crazy we gals can be.
Now there are entire books dedicated to the contributions of women. A recent one is Gail Collins’ masterpiece, “When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women From 1960 to the Present.” Great book, written by the New York Times columnist who, in 2001, became that paper’s first female editorial page editor.
Wait, 2001? That was only 1-2-3 — nine years ago? No wonder I felt the earth move.
So, what do we make of National Women’s History Month in 2010? Some friends host parties full of women who share the histories of the women in their lives. What a great way to pay tribute to women who never felt worthy of the honor.
I come from women who were strong but didn’t know it. They herded children with loving sternness, fed families on nickels a day and made their husbands feel like conquering heroes. They had their opinions, all right, which they loaded up with quotes from Scripture, adding punctuating nods toward Jesus, whose portrait watched over us from their living room walls.
My great-grandmother taught me how to make things — lots of things — from old clothes, curtains and even upholstery. My favorite footstool is the one she made with old sofa fabric stitched over a cluster of coffee cans. I cherish the quilt she made from my mother’s school clothes. When I was a child, my mother would drape it over our laps and tell the story behind every square: This was my favorite Sunday school dress. This was my cheerleading skirt. This was the blouse I wore the day I met your father.
My mother was the size of a leprechaun with twice the outward cheer, no matter how hard her life was on the inside. Total strangers would pour their hearts out to her as we stood in line at the drugstore. She had worked as a nurse’s aide, and there was no ailment she was not willing to discuss, diagnose and cure while we waited for our prescriptions to be filled. When you are 12, you do not want your mother pondering for all the world to hear the possible causes behind strangers’ bloating. Lord. But oh, the joy on her face when we’d run into them again and they’d hug her for their cures.
Her greatest hope for me was that I would not end up like her, which is a heartbreaking thing for a daughter.
“Be braver than I am,” she told me over and over. “Don’t worry so much about what people think.”
A year before she died, she was reading one of my essays, when she patted my hand and said, “You’ve got a lot more guts than I ever had.”
She looked so surprised when I turned to her and said, “That’s because of you, Mom.”
It’s National Women’s History Month.
I’d love to hear your stories.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the author of two books from Random House, “Life Happens” and “… and His Lovely Wife.” She is a featured contributor in a recently released book by Bloomsbury, “The Speech: Race and Barack Obama’s ‘A More Perfect Union.'”
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