A State historic marker designating Sarah Lawrence College as the “Home of the Nation’s First Graduate Degree Program in Women’s History, founded by Dr. Gerda Lerner in 1972,” was unveiled on Saturday, June 5th at 2 p.m. Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-NY) spoke at the ceremony that honored Dr. Lerner, widely acknowledged as one of the foremost pioneers in the field of women’s history. In attendance was alumnae of the Women’s History program as well as alumnae of the historic 1979 Summer Institute in Women’s History that was organized by the Sarah Lawrence graduate program under Dr. Lerner’s leadership and the Women's Action Alliance and from where, 25 years ago, Women’s History Week (later to become Women’s History Month) was launched.
The program honoring the Women’s History program was part of the College’s 2004 reunion celebrating Sarah Lawrence’s 75th anniversary. Recognized for its innovative pedagogy that stresses close student faculty interaction at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, the College established several pioneering programs of which Women’s History is particularly notable. Program directors and faculty have included many whose names are among the most illustrious in the field of women’s history. In addition to Dr. Lerner they include Amy Swerdlow, Alice Kessler-Harris, Sherry Ortner and Barbara Engel, to name just a few.
One of the hallmarks of the Women’s History program is the convening of conferences and meetings of scholars and activists to address issues of pressing concern. In 1979 only five years after the program began, a summer institute was held that would give important momentum to the women’s movement. Immediately after the “Institute in Women’s History for Leaders of Women’s Organizations” that summer, two student-activists brought a resolution passed at the Institute proclaiming “the annual celebration of Women’s History Week” to members of Congress, President Carter and governors of the states. National acceptance of the proclamation and the ultimate designation of Women’s History Month resulted.
Twenty five of the original 52 participants at the ‘79 institute returned to Sarah Lawrence to reflect on how far women have come, tried to recapture the spark of the movement, and began to develop an action plan for the future renewal of the women’s movement. Many of the original attendees of the Institute have gone on to attain positions of leadership in a range of fields, including teaching, research, social advocacy and grassroots organizing.
“The quest to know our history as women and the desire to use that knowledge in our organizing efforts for women’s equality converged twenty-five years ago at Sarah Lawrence College in a Summer Institute in Women’s History for Leaders of Women’s Organizations,” says Pam Elam, one of the activists who had taken the proclamation to Washington and who planned the reunion of the institute participants. “In many ways, the summer of ’79 at Sarah Lawrence College and its June 2004 Reunion offered, in microcosm, a view of the last quarter century of Women’s Movement activity for change,” she added.
Reflections from Participants at the 1979 Summer Institute:
On the importance of the 25th reunion:
I am angry and concerned about the fragility of the protections women have struggled so hard to gain and about the horrific circumstances of millions of women and girls around the world. I feel a great sense of urgency, more than ever before. I will be interested in sharing ideas, concerns, and experiences with those remarkable women I met in 1979.
- Carole Artigiani
On the achievement of Women’s History Week (to become Women’s History Month) following the Institute:
“I had sent the Women’s Action Alliance copies of the curriculum and organizing guides and commemorative posters, we had designed for Women’s History Week in Sonoma County. My primary goal in attending the conference was to get the Women’s History Institute to embrace a National Women’s History Week. It was an easy win. I don’t remember any opposition.
“The difficulty came later as we worked to get a Congressional Resolution. Pam Elam and Peggy Pascoe did much of the coordination and lobbying. There was early success with the governors of each state because participants returned to their states and asked their governors to declare Women’s History Week. Someone or some group got the ear of the White House because I received a call from Sarah Weddington, who was President Carter’s Assistant for Women’s Affairs. She told me that the President was going to issue a Presidential Proclamation calling on the America people to pause and remember the tremendous contributions of American women. He issued that Presidential Proclamation in 1980 and every president since has done the same.
“In 1980, I co-founded the National Women’s History Project. Our mission is to recognize and celebrate the diverse and historic accomplishments of women by providing information and educational materials and programs.
“National Women’s History Week which in 1987 became National Women’s History Month has been very successful in getting schools, communities, workplaces, and organizations to recognize women’s history. The most effective way to use women’s history is to make it personal and relevant to your audience.”
-Molly Murphy MacGregor
On participants’ roles in implementing the drive for Women’s History Week (Month)
“When I returned to Illinois I was charged up for women’s history month and luckily was tied into a major statewide alliance of women’s groups: the Illinois Women’s Agenda. It didn’t take much persuading to get the Agenda to take women’s history week on with much enthusiasm. It was the perfect project because it could encompass all women and we had much diversity (including disagreement on many issues) in the Agenda membership.
“Women’s History Week and now month continues in Chicago… We did an all day workshop (now repeated on a regular basis) Called Don’t Throw it Away-Saving the History of Women’s Organizations to draw attention to the need to save and donate records. I left Chicago in fall 1980 and returned to Philadelphia where I had lived in the early 70’s.
“Upon arrival in Philadelphia I began to get calls from folks in city government who wanted to do the women’s history week thing there—they had heard about what I had done in Chicago and had heard about it from other sources. Within months I was drawn into planning meetings. At some point which I don’t recall now I began giving the Don’t Throw it Away workshops again and began to help a writer assemble a guide to women’s history collections in the Delaware Valley—still a useful source.
“In the early 1990’s I began having lunch with a small group of mostly women (one guy) which resulted in the country’s first conference on women’s historic sites held at Bryn Mawr College. This conference proved seminal as many attendees (myself included) have become very involved with saving and interpreting women’s history sites. There are two editions of a great set of driving and walking tours about women’s history, which came out of this conference.”
– Cindy Little
On women’s history or any other history projects participants initiated or in which they played a major role or were influenced by the Institute:
“I began immediately to incorporate women’s history in all my presentations and writing. Because I was directing/coordinating the ACLU Southern Women’s Rights Project, there were a lot of these. I also helped to organize a number of women’s history community programs.
“Most immediately I returned home and developed a course on “Black Women in White America” for high school students.
“Several years later, I was privileged to help initiate and to serve on the board of a new Virginia Women’s History Project, which Lynda Robb, wife to the governor, began as her first lady project. It was several years of work to organize museum exhibits, a catalogue, a film on the history of Virginia women, speaker series, a Harriet Tubman opera, and other events. The Project is celebrating its 20th anniversary this fall at the state Library of Virginia with an exhibit and catalogue focused on new material we have discovered about Virginia women’s history since that time. (The early project set up ongoing research grants with money left from the original effort. These continue today.)
“Every newsletter I wrote, every talk I gave, every opportunity I had I tried to get a women’s history component into the discussion. I think the best example though was inviting Carolyn Reed into the South to address black household workers in Georgia and Mississippi. I did the logistics but she did the real work. I saw those faces as she spoke. I knew they were moved to organize by some of those stories.
“Over the years, I developed and taught several college courses on different aspects of women’s studies which included women’s history: Women, War and Peace; Women, Health and Healing; Women and the Economy.”
- Betsy Brinson
For the past fifteen years, I have been building and sustaining a youth development organization, Global Kids, Inc., which is grounded in a commitment to human rights and social justice. Much of the thinking and practice that is the mark of Global Kids comes from my experience as an educator, historian, and activist. Issues of women and girls are an integral part of our programming, which is essentially driven by the interests and experiences of the young people, both girls and boys, involved in Global Kids. Participants are largely from “high needs” schools and marginalized communities of New York City who are learning about critical local and global issues and educating and inspiring others to take action. They understand that historical experience informs present-day circumstances and that the struggle for social justice is life-long. ‘Human rights’ is a powerful organizing tool. Essentially, my work involves educating young people (and those who teach them) about human rights and then supporting them in developing the knowledge, skills, and experiences they need to effect social change.”
On what participants remember most about the Institute:
“It was the result of the bringing together a group of dynamic, committed, curious women who were working to transform society and seeking to know the roots of women’s oppression and the stories of those who had preceded us in this struggle. There was a desire on the part of many participants to find a way for women of diverse backgrounds to find common ground and create strategies for coalescing around a feminist agenda.”
- Carole Artigiani