Uplift and Organize: Women’s History Month 2021

Women’s History Month 2021 commemorates a particularly pivotal time in the American story. We have witnessed history being made at the highest levels of power with the election of Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman, Black and South Asian person to serve in the role. While that certainly gets much-deserved attention, the early months of 2021 have highlighted the contributions of women in a variety of areas. Representative Deb Halaand is poised to also make history after being nominated to serve as the United States Secretary of the Interior, which would make her the first Native American person to serve in the role. Organizers have also made their imprint. Women like Stacey Abrams and LaTosha Brown led voter registration efforts that not only shaped the 2020 elections, but provided a blueprint for underserved people to exercise their influence for years to come. Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter, which was founded by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, officially became the largest protest movement in history and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

In this society that routinely, and baselessly, questions the very idea of female leadership, the aforementioned contributions alone should dispel any misogynist talking points. The November 2020 article in Nature Communications that suggested that “informal female mentorship in academic collaborations is, by certain measures, bad for scientists”, and which was retracted only after forceful demands by women scientists and allies, is a recent example. That is why there is a need to uplift the stories of the women moving the world forward. Women’s History Month is as great an opportunity as any throughout the year to do just that.

Women’s History Month originated in 1981 as a national celebration of “Women’s History Week.” After years of Congressional resolutions, the National Women’s History Project petitioned to expand the observation to an entire month in 1987. Congress passed a resolution in March of that year officially recognizing Women’s History Month and since 1995, US presidents have released annual proclamations recognizing the celebration. Both nationally and here on the University of Oregon campus, Women’s History Month is a time to not just uplift the stories and contributions of women, but to analyze and organize to tackle the inequalities facing women today.

Oregon is as good a case study as any of these competing realities. On one hand, when we revisit the results of the 2020 election, we can clearly see the power of intentional organizing and leadership development with organizations like Emerge. The women’s leadership development nonprofit helped fuel the election of the first Black and Muslim member of the Washington County Commission, Nafisa Fai, as well as the elections of other women to pivotal roles in all aspects of Oregon politics.

However, data show that these success stories are coming in the midst of substantial, lingering inequities. According to a 2018 OPB poll, more than half of women surveyed said they experience sexual harassment in the workplace. The Women’s Foundation of Oregon found that women earn between 53 to 83 cents, depending on race, for every dollar that men make in Oregon. Even in spaces like higher education, where so many of us are actively working on tackling these disparities, the lingering inequities are still glaring. According to a 2020 study by Southern Oregon University, despite the fact that 54 percent of bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women, women were awarded only 33 percent of STEM degrees, which follows a pattern of gender inequity in degrees favored for state funding.

This data speak to power dynamics we cannot ignore, even here at the UO. According to the UO Office of Institutional Research, even though women make up the majority of students (53.7 percent of total students, 53.8 percent of undergrads and 53.7 percent of graduate students) and staff, they are largely underrepresented at the highest levels of leadership. Specifically, women make up 56.7 percent of classified staff and 58.6 percent of officers of administration, but only 39.3 percent of actual administrators. This inverted representation makes it clear that despite the positive increases in gender distribution of our Deans and Department Heads, and the historic achievements happening in this moment, there is still much work that needs to be done.

For Women’s History Month 2021, the UO will be offering a variety of programming and activities to engage with and tackle systemic gender inequity, while also celebrating women’s contributions to the state and our campus community. We hope to bring people together, inspire action and help transform the UO, as well as Oregon and the US, to become all they can be. We look forward to you joining us!