Other Voices

Women’s History Month should celebrate activists

Honduran activist Berta Cáceres, leader of a two-year fight against a dam project, was murdered March 3 in her home.
Honduran activist Berta Cáceres, leader of a two-year fight against a dam project, was murdered March 3 in her home. AP

It’s Women’s History Month, and every year around this time I receive an email that a male colleague sends to his female co-workers and friends, always celebratory of women as great mothers, friends, partners, etc.

It’s a nice thing, but it also shows that we’ve lost sight of the purpose of Women’s History Month. It should be about remembering, honoring and supporting the variety of social justice struggles in which women are involved.

We need to remember and support female activists more.

Take the origin of International Women’s Day during Women’s History Month. It is in fact a remembrance of female workers’ struggles in the United States.

It was first observed by the Socialist Party of America in honor of the 1908 strike of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, one of the largest labor unions in the U.S. and one of the first to have a primarily female membership.

It played a key role in the labor history of the 1920s and 1930s. Subsequent celebrations of the day in Europe were held to build support for women’s right to vote, to hold public office and to work. It was also used to march for peace and protest war during the two world wars.

At the outset, the occasion was used to support women’s activism on behalf of gender equality, but also their protest against such problems as labor discrimination and militarism.

Those struggles were not without risk, as the female activists at the forefront of struggles for equal suffrage for white women and African American women fighting against lynching in the U.S. knew too well.

Their efforts were often met with violence and repression.

This year has become a sad reminder of the risks and dangers that female activists around the world face as they struggle to make it a better place.

Honduran human rights activist Berta Cáceres, a leading voice in indigenous and environmental struggles in her country, was murdered March 3 in her home, a day before her 45th birthday.

Cáceres, who was a member of the Lenca indigenous people and a co-founder of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, received the world’s leading environmental award, the Goldman Environmental Prize, in 2015 for her opposition to one of Central America’s biggest hydropower projects.

Her work was dangerous. As an activist in the country with one of the highest murder rates in the world, Cáceres received multiple death threats, but she would not stop her work.

We all need to honor the activism of women like Cáceres. We need to remember and support all the struggles in which women are involved.

This Women’s History Month, we don’t just want poems about how fabulous women are, or celebrations of historical firsts. Instead, we should learn about and support female activists of the past and present.

We should find new and better ways to honor their struggles by supporting the causes for which they dedicated their lives.

Teachers can teach students about brave anti-lynching activists such as Ida B. Wells, or about the suffragettes who staged hunger strikes to gain the vote for white women in the U.S.

Parents can watch films about female activists, such as Iron Jawed Angels, with their children, or take them to vote, or to a protest against the poisoning of drinking water.

We need to make sure Women’s History Month is not just about the past, but also the present of women’s activism.

Juliet Hooker is a core faculty member in the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.