SUSTAINING THE AMERICAN SPIRIT
Courtesy of the National
Women's History Project
March is Women's History Month. Declared
by Congress in 1987, it is during the month
of March that communities, schools, and
workplaces throughout the country hold special
events and celebrations to honor the extraordinary
historic accomplishments of women.
The theme for Women's History Month 2002
is Women Sustaining the American Spirit.
The purpose of the theme is to showcase
and honor the diverse and interlocking stories
of women who have created and affirmed the
American spirit. This theme helps deliver
the message of who American women are and
what they have accomplished. It is a message
that needs to be carried out throughout
the year. It is a vision for the world and
for our children.
From the earliest times in American history,
women have played pivotal roles in creating,
expanding, and sustaining what has become
the American Spirit. These women did not
speak in one voice, nor did they support
the same outcomes. Still, their courageous
actions and steadfast determination in the
face of great opposition is part of a common
heritage. It is the Spirit of America.
America is unique in that our country has
served as a refuge for those escaping religious
and political persecution. Our history is
the history of people coming together from
different nations and continents with a
myriad of traditions and beliefs. We are
held together as a nation and as a people
by our belief in a set of laws framed by
the Constitution and the Bill of Rights,
laws that guarantee freedom of thought and
expression. Since before the ratification
of the US Constitution, women have worked
to ensure that America's rich cultural,
social, educational, and religious ideas
are incorporated in a political system that
honors America's pluralism. This American
Spirit is as rich and diverse as the people
who created it.
The story of American women is the story
of women working together to form a more
perfect union, expanding the idea of representative
government and democratic principals for
all generations. This expansion of democratic
principles has helped create a spirit of
possibility and purpose --the American Spirit.
Today, I would like to tell you about six
women whose remarkable lives testify to
the tenacity and determination in creating
a spirit of possibility and purpose. Their
lives and work span much of the 20th Century.
Their actions celebrate the importance of
community and service; of family and tradition;
and of living a life with heartfelt purpose.
Collectively, they have been honored by
every echelon of government including five
US Presidents. In America and throughout
the world, their achievements have been
recognized by countless organizations and
universities. Together they have helped
pave the way for a greater sense of possibility
in America of the 21st Century.
The 2002 honorees were born within 20 years
of each other - from 1910 to 1930. During
this time, the world changed dramatically.
The modern world participated in the First
World War, and America faced the repercussions
of that War and Prohibition, as well as
the beginnings of the Great Depression.
These were decades of extraordinary hardship
and rapid change. Yet, the lives of the
women we honor today testify to the many
ways in which individuals triumph over adversity.
Their stories express the rich complexity
of the American experience.
Dorothy Height was born prior to
World War I in 1912 in Richmond, Virginia.
She was educated in the public schools in
Rankin, Pennsylvania. At a very early age,
she established herself as a dedicated student
with exceptional oratorical skills. What
is remarkable about Dorothy Height
is that as a young girl she fearlessly expressed
herself and did not internalize or retreat
from the racist and sexist assumptions or
actions of the times.
It is not surprising that even as a young
woman of 25, she heeded the call of Mary
McLeod Bethune, founder of the National
Council of Negro Women, to join her in her
quest for women's full and equal employment
and educational advancement. By that time,
Dr. Height's career as a Civil Rights
advocate had begun to unfold as she worked
to prevent lynching, desegregate the armed
forces, reform the criminal justice system,
and create free access to public accommodations.
That same year Dr. Height began her
work with the National Young Women's Christian
Association (YWCA) of the USA. She rose
quickly through the ranks and held several
leadership positions. Assuming responsibility
for developing leadership training activities
for volunteers and staff, she also developed
programs to promote interracial and ecumenical
education. Dr. Height is credited
with developing the strategies to ensure
the success of the YWCA's mission to provide
equal opportunity and facilities for women
of all cultures and nationalities.
She was one of the major leaders of the
Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's. These
were fear-filled, challenging times. To
create a dialogue about the Civil Rights
Movement, she organized "Wednesdays
in Mississippi," bringing together
Southern and Northern White and Black women.
Her belief in honoring the diversity of
America is seen in her promotion of interfaith,
interracial, and ecumenical movements.
Having served as the president of the National
Council of Negro Women for over 40 years,
Dr. Height's work has helped countless
women in America and around the world participate
in democratic reform resulting in new opportunities
for themselves, their families, and their
In 1937, when Dorothy Height was
beginning her work with the YWCA, another
young woman a continent away was fighting
the growing anti-Semitism that would within
the decade create a devastating Holocaust
for millions of European Jews.
Gerda Lerner was born in 1920 in
Vienna, Austria into a well-to-do Jewish
family. As a teenager she experienced the
Nazi's rise to power and became involved
in the underground resistance movement.
She was imprisoned and then, with her family,
forced into exile. In 1938, she alone was
able to find refuge in America. Arriving
during the difficult time of the Great Depression,
she worried about the fate of her family
still living in Europe. She became a naturalized
American Citizen, married her life partner
Carl Lerner and had two children.
She demonstrated her strong convictions
about the importance of justice and equality
for all people by participating in grassroots,
community movements. She worked to create
an interracial civil rights movement; for
better schools in New York City; for peace
and social justice; and against McCarthyism.
In 1958 Gerda Lerner returned to
college and in 1966 graduated with a Ph.D.
from New York's Columbia University. Becoming
one of the nation's preeminent scholars,
she challenged long-held assumptions about
women and their significance in history.
Today, Dr. Lerner is acknowledged
as one of the foremost pioneers in the field
of women's history. Her scholarship was
informed and expanded by her involvement
and understanding of the power of grassroots,
political movements. Her work now spans
In 1971 she wrote The Grimke Sisters,
the story of two, white, privileged, Southern
women who went North to fight against slavery.
Her writings address the need to eliminate
the invisibility of women and her books
fill in the omissions. She began writing
an extraordinary research project on the
development of feminist consciousness, which
necessitated almost a decade of research
and two volumes. The first volume, The
Creation of Patriarchy, was published
in 1986, and the second, The Creation
of Feminist Consciousness, in 1993.
Her current best seller is Why History
Matters. Gerda Lerner's brilliant
scholarship and teaching demand that students
and readers re-examine old ideas about who
women are and what women have accomplished.
In April, her autobiography, Fireweed,
will be published. In all, she has written
10 books and mentored generations of historians.
In 1981 Dr. Lerner became the first
woman in fifty years to be elected president
of the Organization of American Historians.
She continues to encourage the expansion
of thought and perspective. Her work is
a celebration of the American Spirit.
A contrasting example can be found in Dakotah/Hidatsa
(pronounced da ko ta /hee dot sa) historian
and scholar Mary Louise Defender-Wilson.
Her stories connect the ancient with the
present, the traditional with the modern,
and all life forms with each other. Her
words testify to the complexity of America's
history and the rich diversity of America's
Using the gifts passed down from her great
grandmother, to her grandmother, to her
mother, she uses the ancient form of story
telling to help remind us of life's purpose.
Her stories are based on the traditions
of the Dakotah/Hidatsa in promoting peace
and respect among all people. Her work serves
as a cultural bridge to the America of the
Mary Louise was born on the Standing
Rock Indian Reservation in Sheilds, North
Dakota in October of 1930. From her earliest
years, she was steeped in the stories handed
down through the centuries by gifted storytellers
who kept alive the legends of the past.
Using both the Dakotah and English languages,
she began storytelling when she was eleven
years old. Repeating the stories of her
elders, she learned to respect and honor
human conflict resolution.
Her life and work blend traditional Dakotah/Hidatsa
ways with those of contemporary America.
She uses her storytelling to foster knowledge
and respect for one's own culture and as
the bridge to communication and respecting
the culture of others. Knowing the richness
of history and power of culture and language,
Mary Louise Defender-Wilson worked
to educate all the children in North Dakota
about the basic principles of honor. The
curriculum she created was based on the
Dakotah principles of courage, wisdom, compassion,
and spirituality. Her stories can be compared
to those of Aesops Fables for the lessons
Today, she continues her work through radio
programs and CD recordings and tells stories
that celebrate the idea that all generations
need to be connected with a sense of purpose
and history. Her vision is one of respect
and honor for all life. Her passion is for
the land and its care.
Hearing her stories told first in her native
tongue and then in English reminds the listener
of the complicated beauty and nuances of
language. As a nation of so many contrasting
voices, Americans can benefit from taking
the time to listen and hear. There is so
much to gain from knowing about other American
cultural and generational experiences.
The Great Depression of the 1930's defined
the American experience for a generation.
It was a difficult time for most, yet somehow
hope for a better time prevailed.
Dolores Huerta was born in Dawson,
New Mexico in 1930, about seven months after
the infamous stock market crash. For Dolores,
it was the strength, independence, and ambition
of her mother that encouraged her to create
her own life and her own sense of purpose.
In so doing, she came to embody the American
spirit that defies all stereotypes. Dolores
Huerta is small in body but gigantic
in spirit and energy. Her passion for justice
and equal opportunity makes her one the
century's most powerful and respected labor
In the 1950's after graduating from Stockton
Junior College, Dolores began teaching in
a farm workers' community. As she witnessed
the heartbreaking hunger of her students,
she knew she needed to take direct action
to try to eliminate the brutal conditions
of poverty that defined their lives and
their aspirations. She decided to leave
teaching and began working in the community
to secure better living and working conditions
for the farm workers.
To confront these problems, she used the
American traditions of organizing, lobbying,
registering voters, and encouraging people
to participate in democratic reform. In
1962 along with Caesar Chavez, she co-founded
what would become the United Farm Workers
Union (UFW). Using tactics of non-violence,
she organized a successful boycott of California
table grapes. The boycott lasted five years
but resulted in the entire California table
grape industry signing a three-year collective
bargaining agreement with the UFW.
Dolores Huerta is also credited with
lobbying successfully for the enactment
of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act,
the first law of its kind in the United
States which grants farm workers the right
to collectively organize and bargain for
better wages and working conditions. Four
decades later, she continues with the goal
of empowering farm workers with information
and skills to help them secure better living
and working conditions.
Ms. Huerta's eleven grown children credit
their mother with inculcating in them a
sense of civic duty and inspiring them to
succeed in their varied professions of doctor,
lawyer, massage therapist, teacher, public
health specialist, film maker, and poet.
She is also a role model for her fifteen
grandchildren, encouraging each of them
to act with purpose and to believe in the
possibility of what their work can accomplish.
Her life and her mission demonstrate the
most generous and determined aspects of
the American Spirit.
The determination of the American Spirit
can also be seen in the life of Alice
Coachman. In London, England in 1948,
during the first Olympics held after World
War II, Alice became the first American
woman to win an Olympic Gold medal in track
and field. Breaking the previous world record
in the high jump, her success challenged
long held assumptions about women's physical
ability to participate in track and field
and opened the doors for the success of
generations to follow which would include
3-time gold medallist Wilma Rudolph and
her Tigerbell teammates.
Alice Coachman was born in Albany,
Georgia in 1923, the fifth of ten children.
Denied access to public training facilities
because of segregation policies, she ran
barefoot on the back roads of Georgia and
devised all sorts of makeshift setups to
jump over - from strings and ropes to sticks
and tied rags. Her parents thought she should
direct herself to a more ladylike path,
but Alice was determined to succeed
as an athlete.
Alice overcame the effects of segregation
to win twenty-five national titles as well
as the Olympic Gold. Emboldened with the
spirit of possibility, Alice says, "I've
always believed that I could do whatever
I set my mind to do." After her Olympic
victory, she returned to America to train
other women athletes. Her legacy opened
possibilities for future generations of
women to participate and succeed in Track
and Field. Alice Coachman worked
to ensure the success of future generations
as she passed the torch of opportunity to
other American women.
Although they have never met, Alice Coachman
and Patsy Mink share a passion for
athletics and sport. Alice won the Olympic
Gold and trained others to follow; Patsy
championed the break-through legislation
that allows girls and women to participate
in sports beyond anything imagined in previous
Patsy Mink has served in the House
of Representatives for twelve terms. She
is the first woman of Asian descent to serve
in the U.S. Congress. Her ancestry is the
classic story of immigrants seeking a better
life in America for themselves and their
families. Her four grandparents emigrated
from Japan in the late 1800's to work as
contract laborers in Maui's sugar plantations.
Patsy was born in Maui in December
of 1928. From her earliest years, she was
encouraged to excel in academic courses.
When she ran for student body president
during her junior year in high school, she
began her unofficial political career. World
War II had begun and she was facing the
anti-Japanese-American sentiment that prevailed
throughout the country. She also had to
overcome the obstacle of being the first
girl to run for this office. To achieve
this goal, she impressed a variety of students,
including gaining the support of the popular
football team. She won a very close election
and learned the importance of coalition
building. In 1944 she graduated as high
school class valedictorian.
She began college at the University of Hawaii,
but transferred to the University of Nebraska
where she faced a policy of segregated student
housing. Working with other students, their
parents, and even university trustees, this
policy of discrimination was ended. She
returned to the University of Hawaii to
prepare for medical school and graduated
with a degree in zoology and chemistry.
However, in 1948, none of the twenty medical
schools to which she applied would accept
She decided to study law and was accepted
by the University of Chicago because they
considered her a "foreign student."
Deciding not to inform the University that
Hawaii was an American territory, she obtained
her Doctor of Jurisprudence in 1951.
Newly married, she became the first Asian-American
woman to practice law in Hawaii. In 1956,
she was elected to the Territorial House
of Representatives. It was the beginning
of a long and effective political life for
In 1959, Hawaii became the 50th state.
In 1965, Patsy Mink was elected to
the U.S. House of Representatives and began
the first of six consecutive terms in the
House of Representatives. She was the first
woman of color to be elected to Congress.
Mink's ability to build coalitions
for progressive legislation continued during
her tenure in Congress. She introduced the
first comprehensive Early Childhood Education
Act and authored the Women's Educational
In the early 1970's, she played a key role
in the enactment of Title IX of the Higher
Education Act Amendments. Written in 1972
to be enacted by 1977, Title IX, which prohibited
gender discrimination by federally funded
institutions, has become the major tool
for women's fuller participation not only
in sports, but in all aspects of education.
In 1977, Patsy Mink gave up her House
seat to make an unsuccessful run for the
US Senate, but in 1990 she was re-elected
to the House. Her hard work is obvious as
she serves on a variety of House Committees
and Subcommittees. Her dedication and knowledge
are highly visible as she strives to create
an equitable America where all people have
access to education in a peaceful environment.
She has accomplished much in sustaining
the American Spirit.
As we recognize the extraordinary contribution
of the 2002 honorees, we are reminded that
their success was possible because of the
ideas of a democratic society. It is important
to consider the power and privilege of a
representative government. For a moment,
think of how different your life is because
you live in a country with not only a Constitution,
but also a Bill of Rights.
American women won the right vote in 1920.
It was a 72-year campaign conducted by those
whose names few of us will ever know. Yet,
we owe them our gratitude. Because they
believed in the American Spirit, and participated
in the American process of petitioning,
lobbying, and organizing, women's lives
are filled with possibilities previously
In celebrating the American Spirit, let
us also recognize the countless women who
everyday encourage a sense of possibility
by their generous acts of kindness. Let
us honor the women who daily help make the
world better. Let us remember the teachers
in our schools, the volunteers in our communities,
the women in our families. Who are the women
who have encouraged your own sense of possibility?
Remembering that encouraging the sense of
possibility and purpose is part of America's
promise, we honor all women who have made
this promise a reality. As we celebrate
Women Sustaining the American Spirit,
let us not just remember their work in March,
but let us remember and celebrate their
lives throughout the year.
Written by: Molly Murphy MacGregor, President and Cofounder, National Women's History Project
Related NWHP articles:
The National Women’s History Project (NWHP) is a non–profit organization dedicated to recognizing and celebrating the diverse and historic accomplishments of women by providing information and educational material and
programs. For more about NWHP, as well as to find out about National Women's History Month events in your area, please see their website at www.nwhp.org.