In 1978, a school district in Sonoma, California, organized a Women’s History Week as a way to teach children about some of the important women who made an impact on the world. These students and teachers had no idea their presentations of essays, poster boards, and a parade of school children would turn into a national month-long celebration, but it did. Now, every year schools, organizations, and communities around the country use the month of March to honor the influential women who have helped shape our world today.
As you prepare to celebrate the 32nd annual Women’s History Month, take inspiration from the origins of the holiday, and the 13 powerful women who have been named as honorees this year. Learn more about them and use their actions as inspiration by looking for ways you can support or celebrate women's accomplishments in your own community. Whether that's encouraging other women in your workplace or volunteering with an educational program for girls, women supporting women is what it's all about.
FPG/Getty Images The Women's History Alliance chose Lucy Burns, second from the left, as one of their 2020 honorees.
The Story Behind Women’s History Month
Two years after the Women’s History Week celebration in California, President Jimmy Carter proclaimed a National Women’s History Week during the week of March 8, 1980. When he announced the proclamation, he said, “Too often the women were unsung and sometimes their contributions went unnoticed. But the achievements, leadership, courage, strength, and love of the women who built America were as vital as that of the men whose names we know so well.”
On March 12, 1987, Congress passed legislation that declared the month of March would be a national celebration of Women’s History Month forever.
As communities around the country adopted Women’s History Week celebrations, many areas found that one week just wasn’t enough. By 1986, fourteen states had declared their own month-long celebrations of women’s history, and in 1987 the National Women’s History Project (now known as the National Women’s History Alliance) asked Congress to declare an official Women’s History Month. On March 12, 1987, Congress passed legislation that declared the month of March would be a national celebration of Women’s History Month forever.
This Year's Theme
Since there are millions of women worth celebrating, the National Women’s History Alliance chooses a theme each year and selects featured honorees who have advanced the world for women within that category. The 2020 National Women’s History Month theme is “Valiant Women of the Vote.” According to the NWHA, it “celebrates the women who have fought for women’s right to vote in the United States.” Since 2020 is an election year, this is a fitting theme, especially since this year also marks the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote.
Each year, the NWHA chooses honorees who exemplify the values of each theme. This year, 13 women join the list of 89 total Women's Month honorees who have been identified as leaders.
2020 Living Honorees
Maria Teresa Kumar
A political rights and voting rights activist, Maria Teresa Kumar resides in Washington D.C. and is the CEO of Voto Latino, non-profit, non-partisan organization that works to increase voter turnout in Hispanic and Latino communities.
Eleanor Holmes Norton
As a graduate of Yale University, Eleanor Holmes Norton spent the last sixty years fighting for civil rights. She served as the assistant legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, the first female chair of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, and spent the last 15 sessions as a representative in Congress for the District of Columbia, where she lives.
Terry Ao Minnis
As the senior director for Census and Voting Programs for Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Terry Ao Minnis works to make the voting process accessible to all people. The Maryland resident serves as the co-chair of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights’ Census Task Force.
Suffrage historian and women’s rights activist Edith Mayo is the current curator emerita for political history at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The Washington D.C. native spent much of her career documenting African American suffragist history and making sure women receive representation for their historical contributions in museums.
2020 Deceased Honorees
As an American suffragist and women’s rights advocate, Lucy Burns (1879-1966) fought for women’s right to vote in the United States and abroad. Her efforts more than a hundred years ago led to the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which secured women's’ right to vote.
Carrie Chapman Catt
Iowan Carrie Chapman Catt (1859-1947) was a second-generation suffragist and is partially credited with the successful ratification of the 19th Amendment. In 1900, she replaced Susan B. Anthony as President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
Wilhelmina Kekelaokalaninui Widemann Dowsett
After Hawaii was made a U.S. territory in 1900, native Hawaiian Wilhelmina Kekelaokalaninui Widemann Dowsett (1861-1929) joined American women in the suffrage movement and founded of the National Women’s Equal Suffrage Association of Hawaii.
Ana Roqué de Duprey
Gifted writer Ana Roqué de Duprey (1853-1933) used her written work to raise awareness and support for the suffragist movement. She founded La Mujer, a Puerto Rican feminist newspaper, the Puerto Rican Feminist League, and the Puerto Rican Association of Suffrage Women.
Elizabeth Piper Ensley
Civil rights leader and Howard University professor Elizabeth Piper Ensley (1847-1919) was a strong supporter of voting rights for African American women, and founder of the Colored Women’s Republic Club, an organization dedicated to educating black women about the importance of voting.
Civil rights leader Marie Foster (1917-2003) dedicated her life to securing voting rights for African Americans. She worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. and became known as “the mother of the voting rights movement” in the south.
Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee
After immigrating from China, Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee (1896-1966) became the first woman to obtain a PhD. from Columbia University. She was a member of the Women’s Political Equality League and worked tirelessly to gain suffrage for women, even while knowing she herself would not be allowed to vote because of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Virginia Louisa Minor
Suffrage activist Virginia Louisa Minor (1824-1894) is known for founding the very first organization in the country to focus on women’s rights. Before the National Woman’s Suffrage Association was founded by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Minor founded the Woman Suffrage Association of Missouri and began a decades-long movement.
Anna Howard Shaw
After serving the country in World War I, Anna Howard Shaw (1847-1919) earned a Distinguished Service Medal as the chair of the Woman’s Committee of the United States Council of National Defense. She later served as President of the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association and was instrumental in the ratification of the 19th amendment, although she did not live to see it passed.