While reading Ruth Rosen’s The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America as an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York in 2003, I was shocked to discover that my own college played an integral in the development of National Women’s History Week, which became a full month in 1987,. What was even more startling to me was that I (and a majority of my fellow students) did not know about this significant piece of women’s history. As a graduate student in the women’s history program at Sarah Lawrence, I decided to write my master’s thesis on the college’s role in the development of National Women’s History Week. During the process of writing my thesis, I fortunately, became acquainted with Molly Murphy MacGregor, a driving force behind the development of National Women’s History Week and the executive director of the National Women’s History Project. Over the years I have known MacGregor, I have been struck with how her early religious experiences as a Catholic child and young woman affected her activism and passion for women’s history. Her story is very similar to many women who have grapple with the conflicting aspects of a religious tradition that at times both venerates women but limits their leadership and agency as a church member.
1972 was a banner year for women’s history: Shirley Chisholm ran for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination and Congress approved the Equal Rights Amendment and Title IX of the Higher Education Act. That year MacGregor was serving as a California high school teacher when a student asked about the woman’s movement. Having no answer, MacGregor strove to educate herself about women’s history and was shocked to find no suitable sources. In the following years, MacGregor began to work for the the Education Task Force of the Sonoma County (California) Commission on the Status of Women when she and four other women came up with an idea for National Women’s History Week. In 1978, the commission in Sonoma County started a week in March dedicated to women’s history. The week containing March 8th was chosen for that event as the date was and still is International Women’s Day. During the summer of the following year, MacGregor participated, along with other women leaders of organizations for women and girls, in a women’s history institute led by the historian Gerda Lerner at Sarah Lawrence College. As part of her application to the institute, MacGregor sent along information about the women’s history week in Sonoma county. The women involved in the institute decided to begin similar celebrations in their own communities and initiate an effort to have the week nationally recognized. The first signs of success arrived in 1980 when President Carter issued a the first Presidential Proclamation declaring the week of March 8, 1980 as National Women’s History Week (full link to the first President Proclamation here. Scroll down to the bottom of the page). That same year Representative Barbara Mikulski and Senator Orrin Hatch co-sponsored a Congressional Resolution for National Women’s History Week to be recognized in 1981. In 1987, galvanized by the fact that fourteen states had already declared March as National Women’s History Month, MacGregor and other women led a lobbying effort to have the full month dedicated to women’s history. Finally in that year Congress declared that March would be national recognized as National Women’s History Month.
After getting to know Molly Murphy MacGregor as a graduate student and member of the National Women’s History Project board of directors, I was struck by how she was shaped by her Catholic childhood. Over the years as I have developed my own research interests in women’s and gender history, religion, feminism, and American history, I have often wanted to revisit this topic with her. I decided to give her a call and ask her a few questions. Growing up in 1950s and 1960s Los Angeles, MacGregor attended Catholic school all the way to the eighth grade and then she attended a public high school. Though she has since stopped practicing Catholicism, MacGregor credits the Catholic Church as well as her parents with inspiring her later activism and passion for women’s history. Of her Catholic education, MacGregor states “In terms of my catholic education, it had everything to do with believing to know, love, and serve God and each other. ..I grew up believing we were all connected though the mystical body of Christ.” Catholics believe that their church is united through the Mystical body of Christ and are guided by Christ, the head. MacGregor also explains that she would not have the “social consciousness” she has now if it were not partly for being taught about the tradition and significance of standing up for what one believes in throughout her childhood and education.
While MacGregor was not particularly bothered by the lack of leadership position for roles for women within Catholicism (she recalled that the role of alter boy never appealed to her as a young girl), what was troublesome was a continual emphasis on death and the dichotomous view of heaven and hell. Because her father never became a Catholic and her parents married outside the church, MacGregor feared that when they died they would both burn in hell. After her father’s untimely death, when accompanying her mother to confession MacGregor was excited anticipating that her mother would finally be able to take communion (she did not partake in this part of the church servive as she had married outside of the church). Yet, when MacGregor was taken aback when her mother claimed that taking communion would not make any difference. To MacGregor’s mother, the church was not necessarily about the leadership in Rome but she would often say “the church is the people—the people who show up there.” Her religious experience was deeply informed by her parents’ counsel and example. She recounts how her brothers told her how a trip to the grocery store with her father often turned into an expedition that included dropping off food on porch of a family, who needed the help.
MacGregor’s leadership with the development of National Women’s History Month and the National Women’s History Project has led her to work with women from a variety of socioeconomic, cultural, and religious background. She attributes her work with these different individuals, including Mormon women, over the last forty years with continuously breaking her own stereotypes about those who are both dedicated to women’s rights and women’s history. Though MacGregor eventually left the Catholic Church in the 1970s partly due to her participation with different political and activist movements, she is an example of why it is nearly impossible to ignore the salient connections between religious influence, activism, and history.