A look at Women’s History Month: Gunn celebrates amid discourse


Origins of Event

Before there was Women’s History Month, there was Women’s History Week. It was a weeklong celebration in Santa Rosa, California organized by the Education Task Force of the Sonoma County Commission on the Status of Women. Over the next few years, Women’s History Week gained momentum both nationally and globally until finally gaining government recognition in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter declared the week of March 8 National Women’s History Week.

In 1981, Congress passed Public Legislation 97-28, which authorized and requested the future president to proclaim the week beginning on March 7, 1982 as “Women’s History Week.” This proclamation continued to be disputed and updated, until, after petitioning from the National Women’s History Month Project, Congress passed Public Legislation 100-9 in 1987, designating the month of March as Women’s History Month.

For the next eight years, Congress continued to pass resolutions requesting the president to proclaim March as Women’s History Month. Every year since 1995, the president has made a proclamation designating March as Women’s History Month, in order to honor and recognize contributions made by women to American history and society.

Gunn will celebrate Women’s History Month this year, mainly through online means. Diversity Commissioner junior Chania Rene-Corail will be running an information campaign on women at Gunn and in Palo Alto in general. “A lot of it will be interview-based and highlighting certain clubs around campus and influential women, mostly on social media,” she said. “Such recognition could be great exposure for the women being recognized, as well as for young girls who may see these posts and feel more secure in their pursuits.”

Recognition for a Month

English teacher Kate Weymouth stresses the importance of allotting time in the year to appreciating the lives of women throughout history. “Having a dedicated Women’s History Month is a start to rectifying the gaps in history,” she said. “But ideally, it would be something that we integrate into history year-round.”

Yet, despite these efforts to recognize women, inequalities between men and women are still visible. These inequalities have without a doubt increased the popularity of Women’s History Month, according to physics teacher Christina Norberg. “When you see the success of someone that looks like you in the field you want to be in, that can be really meaningful,” she said. “(But) the fact that it has to be specified is a symptom of the problem, and the problem is inequity. It traces back to women having less access to getting to those (positions).”

Dangers of Tokenism

Weymouth also pointed out the problem of putting women on higher pedestals simply for the sake of doing so. “My hesitation about dedicating a month to women’s history is that it very easily slips into tokenization,” she said. “Ideally, an educational campaign would address a person in all facets of their life and the different parts of their identities—including what they did that might be historically noteworthy, and doing that in a way that addresses the complexity.”

There are fine lines, recognizing them for only their positive contributions to their community and recognizing them solely because they are women. In a Oct. 2020 article in The Harvard Business Review, Editor-in-Chief Danielle Kost described how tokenization can harm individuals. “Choosing to be a team’s token—a member who’s held up superficially as a symbol of diversity—can be isolating and hurt performance, studies have shown,” Kost wrote. “Members of a particular gender or racial minority might feel pressure to fill stereotypical roles or represent their entire group.”

On the other side, being a women in a male dominated field can bring up other difficulties different from tokenization. “I have been very lucky to work in women-filled departments, (but) when I was going throughout the process of getting my degree, it was obvious that the women were outnumbered by men in higher-level physics classes,” Norberg said. “I didn’t feel impacted by that disparity, because I was always (told by) my parents that whatever I choose to do, I can do.”

Tokenization, however, began to rear it’s head when it came to how others recognized Norberg’s accomplishments in sciences, technology, engineering and math. “People recognized that there are fewer women in STEM fields and praised me for it, which I liked a lot,” she said. “I liked feeling like I was somehow special, and I see (now) how that could also be harmful—that I would be a special case and succeed in STEM rather than the fact that my (gender) has no bearing on my ability to succeed in the field.”

Furthermore, the commercialization of Women’s History Month as a marketing tactic also raises concerns around whether women, and their rights, are truly valued. The White House addresses this in this year’s Women’s History Month proclamation, issued Feb. 28, 2023: “Despite significant progress, women and girls continue to face systemic barriers to full and equal participation in our economy and society. Despite this seemingly progressive and supportive statement, last year, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, stripping away a constitutional right from the American people and the ability of millions of women to make decisions about their own bodies, putting their health and lives at risk.”

Mindfully Celebrating

Even when women are recognized, it is often only when they do actions that are seen as empowering by the public. According to Weymouth, this can exclude certain women. “There’s an implicit message when you highlight one individual as having ‘made it’ or achieved something great: that all the women who didn’t, don’t have the chutzpah to overcome their conditions,” she said. “Highlighting the conditions and average lives of women is something that should be considered—what are the statistical realities of life for most women?”

Indeed, a woman’s “chutzpah” is far from the only thing which prompts her success. Norberg brings up that many factors impact a woman’s ability to achieve, and also her identity as a whole. “It’s the concept of intersectionality and the idea of putting women in a box, and everything in the box is equal,” she said. “(In reality), womanhood intersects with race and socioeconomic status and all the things that define a person. That is something that should be at the forefront of Women’s History Month.”