Let’s Celebrate Women By Being Uncomfortable

I hate Women’s History Month. Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s vitally important to keep remembering that – and why – women matter. It’s crucial that we keep examining and updating our perceptions of women, so that we see them in ways that are ever-more complete, current and correct. I just don’t think that Women’s History Month (“WHM”) accomplishes these ends very well. Unfortunately, WHM (like every other group’s designated “history month”) is often reduced to an annual box-checking exercise that masquerades as a demonstration of commitment to women.

I should know. Decades ago, I was the Diversity officer for a large organization. The traditional observance of WHM was this: We went into our storage closets and dusted off a bunch of yellowed lithographs of exceptional women no one had ever heard of. We put the photos up in the hallways (and removed them promptly on April 1st). We held a lunch and brought in a speaker or two to motivate and educate. Usually, the only people in the audience were women. And then we crossed off the “women-valued-for-this-year” item on our organizational to-do list. We meant well, but I don’t think we helped anyone. Even though it was totally unsatisfying, I never figured out how to do something more meaningful. The only option I saw was to discontinue the charade. Which I did.

Today, 25 years later, I believe that we should celebrate Women’s History Month (and every other “History Month”) by agreeing to make ourselves and each other uncomfortable.  I would like to see March become an annual invitation to reengage, refresh and reexamine our collective narrative about women. I’d like it to be the month where  leaders of both genders come together to assess where women actually stand in their organization, community or country. Where are we with parity, really? What advances can we celebrate, and how do we replicate and increase them?  Where are the gaps between what we say we believe and what we actually do? How do we find that out? What subtle and obvious barriers must women negotiate that their male counterparts do not? What are the organizational ‘clubs’ and power centers in which women still have reduced access or sway? What are the beliefs, behaviors and systems that accomplish this exclusion? When we look at our key strategic challenges, what could women’s perspectives and skill bring to the table that we may be missing?

Women’s History Month is also an invitation for us women to enter into our own discomfort. March is as good a time as any to evaluate ourselves as unflinchingly as we wish our organizations would evaluate themselves. Are there ways in which I have held myself back from making my own small history? Are there situations in which I routinely choose comfort over challenge? Are there necessary battles that I’ve backed away from? Or fights I’ve been fighting ineffectively or for too long? Are there places in which I have abandoned my own vision, principles or well-being in order to keep the waters calm? Are there younger women around me who are withering, either from the absence of a mentor or from active sabotage? Are there any paths I could clear so that other women can make their own history?

Men… you too. Are you relaxing your attention on parity, since the tides of favor and power are starting to shift? Do you levy criticisms against women that you don’t levy against men? Do you hold women in your sphere to higher or lower standards than the men? What one step could you take to check that your impact on women aligns more fully with your best intentions?

Women’s History Month calls us to something better. Organizations, avoid the token nod. Beware self-satisfaction because you hired a lunchtime speaker. Women, resist viewing March as a a month of sanctioned victimhood. Men, keep working for equity. Let’s put ourselves on the hook for real dialogue and meaningful change. Let’s be willing to get uncomfortable and see what happens.

29 replies
  1. Sharon O'Day
    Sharon O'Day says:

    By the time anything is “officialized” into its own “month,” it’s lost most of its energy and only gets dragged out, as you mentioned, to meet an official need. I happen to find it sad that what we all did in the 60s and 70s has disappeared from the dialog, as has everything else that came before and after that. To assume that today’s rights are some sort of entitlement and were always there is the quickest way to see them dissipate. Someone has to be uncomfortable for them to stay vibrant …

  2. Angela
    Angela says:

    I really enjoyed your article. I don’t really pay much attention to the month of this or that and I loved what you said how we need to really evaluate ourselves. I need to do that more often. Thanks for such an awesome perspective.

  3. Lisa Birnesser
    Lisa Birnesser says:

    One of my favorite sayings is “Well behaved women rarely make history.” How sad that the celebration was downsized to pictures of famous women on the wall.Women worked hard for rights and we have to keep reinventing ourselves and push the limits. It’s part of who we are. Thanks for this great post!

  4. Barbara Griffin Billig
    Barbara Griffin Billig says:

    So far I have been largely successful in what I consider a man’s world…..and I’m not through yet. Notice I say “largely”. I have had my share of failures but overall there have been more wins than losses. I say this because if I can do it……anyone can. I just worked long and hard at everything I undertook – and that was uncomfortable….but it worked. I encourage all women to take a look at where they are….and if it is not where they want to be…..get uncomfortable and make a plan for change!

  5. Carolyn Hughes
    Carolyn Hughes says:

    Leslie I couldn’t agree more with your eloquent article. This sentence really stood out for me -“Women, resist viewing March as a a month of sanctioned victimhood.” As someone who was trapped in a victim mentality for many years it was only through confronting the truth and stepping out of my comfort zone that I could be free.
    The message for women should be to reflect, learn and act to become the inspiration for future generations (for both men and women).
    Thank you for your interesting and thought provoking post.

  6. elizabeth maness
    elizabeth maness says:

    Love this.. and I’m with you let’s make our own history. Love the thought about let’s look and see where we were and where we need to go! That’s the only real way to make advances!

  7. Karla Campos
    Karla Campos says:

    I like that you challenge us to go past our comfort zone and evaluate ourselves. Now that you mention it there have been many times where I have backed down to keep the waters calm. Your article makes me not want to do that any more : )

  8. Sherie
    Sherie says:

    We have Women’s History Month in Canada in October to correspond to the day when women were declared “persons” under the law. We have a lot of famous Canadian women that we talk about …not just during our Women’s History Month. I think it’s important to honor all of those who have contributed to all of the many strides we have made. I really liked how you pointed out that we shouldn’t ignore our own lives and should evaluate how we are making our own history.

  9. Cathy Taughinbaugh
    Cathy Taughinbaugh says:

    Love this article. There are several things to acknowledge each month, so it does just become a customary nod. Great point to take a look at our own lives and see how we personally can make a difference.

  10. MamaRed
    MamaRed says:

    Oh so true. Oh so true. A customary nod or dusting off of pictures does nothing to really move things forward. Watched a 3 hour documentary on PBS the other day and darned near cried. So many things that women fought, and fought hard for, are drifting away. Whether we celebrate WHM (or any of the other commercially designed “months’) I think it is essential that we look within and see what we’re doing, how we can move forward. How we can make a difference.

    Excellent and thanks for sharing.

  11. Liz Bigger
    Liz Bigger says:

    This is a great article! I do agree that token homage to women is not good – I also think that it is important to have the WHM in order to remind us how far we have come as women. We should keep pushing and challenge ourselves – lift eachother up too! Thanks for reminding us to keep pushing!!!

  12. aimee
    aimee says:

    I think in 100 years we will have a men’s history month, to remind us they have made contributions too!

  13. Moira Hutchison
    Moira Hutchison says:

    Thanks for a wonderful article – I did not realize that it was WHM ;). I’m with you about not getting into a token nod about something that is very important and should be contemplated on an ongoing basis. It’s true that as women we have come a long way – but there’s still room for growth and that will be brought about to the degree that we are all willing to sit in the *uncomfortable* places too.

  14. Kathy Robinson
    Kathy Robinson says:

    I also didn’t realise it was WHM. And I’m a member of a local Historical Society, though we tend to focus on our town’s history.

    Women are still being marginalized. There was an item on the news last month where it was proven that female graduates were being offered the same jobs as their male counterparts, but at a reduced salary. Grrr, it makes me angry when I hear this.

  15. Patricia Hayes
    Patricia Hayes says:

    Leslie, you’ve said it eloquently, comprehensively and with meaningful invitations to reflect on what these months really mean to us and how well we’re living those values. I think it’s timely, not just because it’s WHM, but because as we speak, a new Pope is being chosen, arguably one of the most powerful people in the world, and this decision is being made only by men. No napping allowed, indeed!

  16. Lisa Frederiksen - BreakingTheCycles.co
    Lisa Frederiksen - BreakingTheCycles.co says:

    Great post!! I understand the effort having written 3 biographies on leaders of the women’s rights movement and having been one of the WHM celebration keynote speakers, but as you said, it’s becomes more of a forced “celebration” instead of an ongoing effort, which is what is necessary given there is still so much unfinished business – for both women and men (e.g., men need equal opportunities in the home, the workplace needs to rethink parental leaves of absence for men…).

  17. Paula Tutein
    Paula Tutein says:

    I respect and am intrigued by your opening “I hate Women’s History Month”. Although I haven’t thought about Women’s History Month until reading your blog, I have some thoughts to share having read your post. How might each woman living today be influencing our future? And what might be happening today that will be “notable history” in the future? New Hampshire now has a woman Governor, 2 women in the US Senate, and 2 women in the US House of Representatives. The US Coast Guard Academy is led by a woman and the US Air Force Academy will soon follow. For business, check out http://hbs.campusgroups.com/wsa/2013-keynotes/ for another lens into what is happening now and a glimpse into what might be possible in the future. And, as we look at the path women have taken, here’s a good place to better understand the historical creativity of women inventors: http://www.women-inventors.com/. Is it possible that 25 years ago, someone in your organization took the information from the posters and presentations home and the conversation around the dinner table led to a future male CEO naturally allowing for more diversity than would have otherwise been possible or a woman that shifted paths to something more supportive of her and others? And, finally, I wonder, how might we change the conversation to that of possibilities for all?

  18. Shari
    Shari says:

    And today is International Women’s Day, which I see as a day to bring uncomfortable truths about the global situation of women front and center. Thanks for the great reminder of the power of discomfort.

  19. Helena Bowers
    Helena Bowers says:

    It’s so easy to become complacent and comfortable when we’re caught up in the midst of every day life. Just reading this made me remember the feminist theory class I took in grad school, and the activist professor that taught it. It was the most uncomfortable class I took because I had to address my own life in the context of all that theory! Thanks for the reminder to not become complacent and to keep pushing for our own stories and histories to be shared. Happy Women’s Day!

  20. Lorii Abela
    Lorii Abela says:

    This article is very inspiring. People should know where woman stand in an organization and this is the time to choose challenge over comfort. Thanks for sharing this article.

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