For the last 41 years, March has marked “Women’s History Month” in the United States. While women’s collective contributions are central to our society, humanities councils also consider the ways in which women’s lived experiences differ one from another, diverge from conventional expressions, and depend on a variety of intersecting factors including race, class, sexuality, ability, or age.
As documented in the Mississippi Humanities-sponsored film, Fannie Lou Hamer’s America, Hamer, a civil rights hero and leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, compares her experience as a Black woman to those who are white and of the middle class:
A person that was born in the middle class who never had to suffer, [she] can afford to take things maybe easier than I can. And all I’ve ever done is suffered. A person who was born in the middle class and has always had things somewhat decent, [she] can’t make a decision for me because [she] actually don’t know how I feel.
Often, as Hamer points out, dominant cultural definitions of “womanhood” center the experiences (and contributions) of white women. Council programs, such as Utah Humanities Virtual Book Festival: Marginalized Voices, remind us that there is no single, universalized delineation of “womanhood.” This festival featured a diversity of authors including Suzi Nguyen, author of the award-winning poetry collection “on the intersections of girlhood and grief,” titled Dear Diaspora, and of Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, a trans woman poet and author of two poetry collections: There Should be Flowers and I’m Alive / It Hurts / I Love It.
Further, as illustrated by the multimedia series, UNLADYLIKE2020 (PBS, American Masters), winner of the 2020 Women Transforming Media award and a project supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, there is a multitude of women’s histories, diverse and underrepresented, that paved the path to women’s suffrage at the turn of the 20th century. To arrive at a more inclusive and therefore more viable understanding of how women shape our shared world, the humanities community acknowledges the critical differences among their lived experiences and celebrates the concept of “womanhood” with multiple and intersecting identities.
Humanities councils across the country celebrate women’s contributions by uplifting their diverse identities and differing experiences. By doing so, they confront the past with honesty while looking boldly to the future. In their “Let’s Talk About It” series theme, Speculative Women, Future Bodies, Oklahoma Humanities explores how “science fiction has allowed many women to re-imagine their place in society, as a hypothetical future can challenge universal ‘truths’ about gender, race, and sexuality.” Here, participants discuss the work of Octavia Butler, Nnedi Okorafor, Ursula K. Le Guin, and other authors. Humanities Guåhan shares the important work of Dr. Laura M. Torres Souder on how CHamoru women have played pivotal roles in their communities from pre-colonial times to today.
In Humanities New York’s podcast series, Amended, listeners consider the ongoing “quest for women’s full equity that has always been as diverse, complex and unfinished as the nation itself.” In their final episode, they highlight the work of Zitkála-Šá’s, a Yankton Dakota writer, musician, and activist who fought for acknowledgment of Native American sovereignty within U.S. citizenship in the early 20th century. Regardless of the decade, council programs recognize a broadened definition of “womanhood,” one that celebrates diversity, to truly understand how women have shaped, and will continue to shape, America.
Written by Jazzy DiMeglio