ROSA PARKS. Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Margaret Sanger. Their actions all helped loosen the corset of discrimination and brought to the world a recognition of the place of women in society. The National Women's History Project, an organization in Santa Rosa, Calif., is continuing to do the same thing.
Since its inception a decade ago, the group has been promoting the idea of celebrating women's accomplishments - in communities and classrooms across the United States. Even Congress is in on it: declaring March Women's History Month each year since 1982.
There are celebrations in every state. For example:
The Iowa Commission on the Status of Women held a state essay contest called ``Write Women Back into History.'' Three thousand children from all grade levels wrote essays about a woman of their choice whose life ``reflects in an ordinary or extraordinary way something they feel needed to be said.'' The governor presented the awards.
The Maryland Commission on the Status of Women developed a packet of information on the achievements of Maryland women, each year focusing on a different area. This year's is ``Women in Math and Science, Explorations and Discoveries.'' The packet contains lesson plans, biographies, background material on equity issues, career explorations, activities around the state, a resource directory, and a list of speakers. ``Every year more and more schools are getting involved,'' says Donna Talbert, executive director. ``It's certainly where change has to begin.''
The Massachusetts Department of Education and the Governor's Office on Women's Affairs held an award ceremony March 15 honoring teachers who developed curriculum that focuses on Massachusetts women from many ethnic and cultural groups. The city of Lowell, Mass., is holding its Second Annual Conference on Women's History today, called ``Teaching American History: Women and Constitutional Rights.''
In many schools, librarians put up posters with a sentence about what a certain historical figure did; students look up the name and do research on her. Classes do dramatic presentations on the lives of famous women.
Some communities hold women's history parades (lots of long white garments), essay contests, or women-of-achievement dinners. There are new versions of Judy Chicago's famous artistic creation of a dinner party, with the names and accomplishments of women inscribed on paper plates.
``That's one of the things we've seen, it's been a wonderful vehicle to bring different groups together, schools, individual women, and the community, so that people can begin to talk to each other,'' says Mollie McGregor, founder of the National Women's History Project.
It all started in 1978 when Ms. McGregor was teaching women's history at a community college in Santa Rosa and couldn't find appropriate materials for her class. When she sent her students to the library to see what books were available, they found very few - and those hadn't been checked out in years.
She felt there needed to be a focus around which teachers could plan the study of women's achievements. As director of the educational task force for the Sonoma County Commission on the Status of Women, she proposed that the superintendent of schools designate a week in March as Women's History Week. She approached the male administrators with some trepidation, she says, but ``to our surprise they were very accepting.''
Soon teachers were requesting materials. The group didn't have any, but ``in a very grandiose fashion, we said we'd provide them,'' she said.
McGregor and other members of the task force put together a curriculum guide that included information and biographies on women like Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor; Harriet Tubman, famous for rescuing slaves through the Underground Railroad; and Sally Ride, the first US woman astronaut.
Celebrations of women's history week spread. Teachers all over the country wrote asking for information after a Ms. magazine article mentioned the curriculum guide. The response propelled the task force to set up a separate nonprofit organization, the National Women's History Project, to provide training and materials for teachers. The group now has a 300-item catalog that goes out to 300,000 people. Among its listings are information kits on how to set up Women's History Month celebrations, a ``How We Got the Vote'' video (narrated by Jean Stapleton), a recording of speeches by Susan B. Anthony and other suffragettes, and announcements of one-woman shows about famous women.
And biographies galore. Of everybody. ``Golda Meir, Mother Teresa, Diana Ross, Dolly Parton, several athletes,...'' says Bonnie Eisenberg, education director.
The organization also holds workshops to show teachers how to use women's history materials in every type of class. Staff members are hired by state departments of education and by school districts to provide training.
``Soon teachers were telling us that a week was not enough, that they needed more time for scheduling speakers and organizing events,'' says Ms. Eisenberg. ``That's how we got the idea of making it a month.'' One indication of the widespread support the idea has received is that conservative Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah has cosponsored the bill every year since 1982. His mother was a suffragette.