This month is National Women’s History Month in the United States. The founding of women’s history week, which was later made a full month, can be read here. Integral to this celebration and recognition of women’s history was a Congressional Resolution for National Women’s History Week cosponsored by Representative Barbara Mikulski and Senator Orrin Hatch in 1981. The unlikely partnership of Hatch, a conservative of Mormon Utah, and Representative Mikulski, a democrat from Maryland, made many take notice. A 1982 article described the reaction including that of Gerda Lerner, the historian responsible for the first graduate programs in women’s history and author of seminal women’s history texts:
A resolution was pushed through Congress by two most unlikely allies, conservative Orrin Hatch and liberal Barbara Mikulski. A proclamation was then signed by President Reagan who commented: “The many contributions of American women have at times been overlooked in the annals of American history.
This brought wry smiles from Gerda Lerner, the first female president of the Organization of American Historians. “I can’t think what was in the minds of the people in Congress who sponsored it,” she said. “I suppose it shows that supporting women’s efforts legitimize their own past something that is a nonpartisan endeavor if ever there was one.”
Was Hatch’s co-sponsorship of the bill simply out of an appreciation for women’s history? While the answer is likely, on some level, yes, the period under which this proclamation went forward cannot be ignored.
Before several women, including Molly MacGregor of the National Women’s History Project, met together on the campus of Sarah Lawrence to hold a Women’s History Institute, several celebrations of women’s history had been taking place in March for some time. Not only did these celebrations emerge out of the Modern Women’s Movement but a growing embrace of celebrating different ethnic identities also contributed to the acceptance of women’s history week/month. In 1976, the expansion of Negro History Week to Black History Week was recognized by the federal government. Though a federal holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King was not signed into law until 1983, a bill to introduce the holiday first came into the House in 1979. Hispanic Heritage Week (which later also became a full month) was first proclaimed by LBJ in 1968.
Given this push for what we know refer to as diversity or multiculturalism, having a week dedicated to the history of women makes sense.
Returning to Orrin Hatch’s particular impetus for cosponsoring the bill…the political climate surrounding the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and early 1980s. The Mormon involvement in defeating the ratification of the ERA has been well documented. Senator Orrin Hatch, a known critic of the ERA, wrote a 103-page book called The Equal Rights Amendment: Myths and Realities in 1983.
Was Hatch’s support of Women’s History Week a sort of compromised recognition of the feminist movement? Of course, given Mormonism’s theological emphasis on recording and celebrating family history, it would make some sense that a Mormon senator may support the establishment of a women’s history week, which could serve as another vehicle to acknowledge “nontraditional” histories.
Whatever the reason for Hatch’s co-sponsorship of the bill, the fact that many of the same women who pushed for a national women’s history week also actively support the ERA cannot be ignored.
In this short series, I will consider how these two movements for the ERA and establishment of women’s history week held similar origins but, ultimately, found themselves on different trajectories.