Honoring heroines past and present

My Dear Mrs. Stone,

I should think it was hardly necessary for me to write or to say that it is impossible for me ever to ''go back'' on Womans Suffrage. I earnestly desire to go forward on that line as far & as fast as the prejudices, selfishness & blindness of the world will let us....If I can do no more let my name stand among those who are willing to bear ridicule & reproach for the truth's sake, & so earn some right to rejoice when the victory is won.

Most heartily yours for Woman's Suffrage & all other reforms, Louisa May Alcott, Concord, Mass.

The fervor expressed in this memorable letter to suffragist Lucy Stone from author Louisa May Alcott was heard across the country this week as women gathered to celebrate National Women's History Week. Like their sisters of the 1800s, they too are going forward.

This year marks the first official recognition of National Women's History Week, thanks to the efforts of Rep. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) of Maryland, who introduced the Congressional resolution last summer, and the members of the Congressional Women's Caucus, who gave their enthusiastic support.

In the spirit of the proclamation signed by President Reagan which honors ''women of every race, class, and ethnic background'' who ''helped found the nation in countless recorded and unrecorded ways,'' as well as those women who have been ''consistently overlooked and undervalued in the body of American history,'' a number of commemorative programs were designed to draw attention to the week's celebration.

In the nation's capital, for example, The Fairfax Area League of Women Voters in conjunction with the District of Columbia Department of Corrections and the National Woman's Party erected a roadside marker near the site of the workhouse where a band of some 100 suffragists were imprisoned in 1917 for disturbing the peace by marching up and down in front of the White House.

''These women were not ultraactivists but ordinary-citizen types,'' says League spokesperson Mary Ann Cox. ''Their mistreatment, which included solitary confinement and forced feeding, when they went on hunger strike to protest what they considered their illegal arrest, was one of the factors that roused the public to pressure Congress in 1919 to pass the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.''

Across the Potomac, at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History, a panel that included United States Senator Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas, feminist Gloria Steinem, and actress Lee Grant convened March 11 to discuss ''images of women in American culture.'' The symposium was cosponsored by the Congressional Women's Caucus and the newly formed Wonder Woman Foundation , a non-profit, grant-giving organization established by Warner Communications.

''We set up two display cases that feature the fictional heroine Wonder Woman ,'' says the Smithsonian's Edith Mayo, a researcher who has ''great fun'' with her work. ''Wonder Woman was conceived in the early 1940s by the psychologist who invented the lie-detector test. He was concerned that there were a number of heroes for young boys, but no strong and positive role models for young girls. If you'll recall, Wonder Woman was quite feminine and also quite strong. She always presented the self-reliant woman, the woman who either converted or outwitted her enemies.''

Outside of Washington, most of the celebrating of National Women's History Week was done at the grass-roots level. Spokespersons for the National Organization for Women, the League of Women Voters, and the newly formed Older Women's League all reported that their organizations had encouraged individual chapters to honor local known and unknown heroines and to keep in mind the heroines of the future.

In Massachusetts the Governor's Commission on the Status of Women unveiled a new exhibit that focuses on the contributions of Massachusetts women from colonial days to the present. Drawing on the extensive collections of Radcliffe College's Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, commission members selected photographs and correspondence to display in the gold-domed State House.

Handwritten letters of rousing political sentiment, tender notes of familial concern, and an occasional postcard of lighthearted riposte confirm that the Commonwealth's early women were a spunky lot. A favorite of many is this note from Abigail Adams to her daughter, Ann:

''I rode up to your house this morning to inquire how the children were and heard that they were both well....If there should be any salmon to be had tomorrow and Mr. Foster would get me part of one I will be much obliged to him, I should not like to give more than a quarter of a Dollar for it.''

Elizabeth N. Metayer, the legislator who now occupies John Adams's seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, says she often imagines Abigail Adams smiling down on her, poking her husband in the side and saying, ''See, John, a woman can do it, too.''

A 70-year-old, third-term Democrat, Rep. Metayer is one of the legislature's most experienced members. Her concern of the hour, she says, is getting a bill passed that would require employers to make space on job-application forms for listing volunteer experience.

''So many of the women in the House reached this point by route of being volunteers, of learning valuable skills in working with people,'' she explains, citing her own 25 years of community involvement. ''Last year I was able to persuade the legislature to pass a measure saying that employers 'may' include space for volunteer service on applications, and this year I'm going after a 'shall.' ''

If the bill doesn't pass this year? Says Mrs. Metayer, throwing down a challenge reminiscent of Susan B. Anthony: ''I'll fight for it on the floor and then go privately to my colleagues and say, 'If you want to put people to work in this country and you're sincere, then vote for this. Put your vote where your mouth is.' '

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