By Paul K. Haeder
It’s a no-brainer — every day should be women’s appreciation day. Sure, we have these Hallmark milestones in the country – Black History Month, Native American Culture Month and now, March, Women’s History Month.
My own roots are embedded with strong independent women mentors. For my Scottish grandmother, she came over to Canada as a teen and worked all her life as a cook, nanny, hospital nutritionist. She played the stock market on low wages and set up her only child with some decent funds.
My mother was a single mother with my half-sister. She went from Vancouver — where her husband was a playboy with a gambling problem who had the “mafia” after him — to Flagstaff, then to Hermosa Beach, and then she married my father. Mona, my mom, was the central force of several military wives groups in places like Paris, France, Munich, Germany and Tucson.
My aunt Edna came from England to Massachusetts with two other women from the old country. They opened up an ice-cream shop in Northampton, and then eventually got deep into the restaurant field setting up a high-end eatery called The Whale Inn.
I went there on vacations, recalling the stories of Liz Taylor and one of her husbands having a marriage reception there.
I absorbed stories of my German great-grandmother Elfrieda, who, as a midwife in North Dakota and Minnesota, delivered hundreds of babies. Another relative, an aunt, survived the allied bombing of Dresden with her five children. She helped an entire neighborhood live by scurrying them into an abandoned warehouse cellar she had used for potatoes and cauliflower.
The first Women’s Day in the USA — Feb. 28, 1909 — occurred a year after the Manhattan garment workers’ strikes when 15,000 women marched for better wages and working conditions. Most of them were teenage girls who worked 12-hour days. Then, in 1911, in one factory, Triangle Shirtwaist Company (where female employees were paid $15 a week in sweatshop conditions: low level lighting, in tight conditions at sewing machines) 145 female workers were killed in a fire. This pushed lawmakers to finally pass legislation meant to protect factory workers through stringent safety measures.
Fast-forward to today. I’m teaching a memoir writing class at OCCC-Waldport with mostly women in attendance. Memoirs are different than autobiographies, and this publishing arena is now greatly populated by women memoirists. All three “textbooks” I use in the class were written by women. Additionally, Mary Karr’s “The Liars Club,” and Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild,” are two memoirs we reference.
Time and time again, memoir writing classes I’ve facilitated in Texas, Washington and here have been predominately attended by women who, for all intents and purposes, are the keepers of the family history.
Throughout my career as educator and journalist, I have seen more and more women take the lead in many fields. One magazine article I published focused on the graduating class at Washington State University’s veterinarian sciences program. All those DVM graduates were women.
The dean of the school stated there is an active recruiting campaign to get “more men into the field.” Imagine that, women undertaking vet sciences, which in 1950 was almost exclusively a male-dominated field.
The reasons for the shift in gender representation are complicated, but one truism stands: veterinarian science is largely a pet field, one where communication with pet owners is vital. It is a field where the patient is actually the human. From field, to barn, to yard, to house, to bed — that’s the shift in the veterinarian field, as illustrated by our dogs and cats.
It begs the question: Are men as empathetic and responsive to the patient’s owner’s psychological and spiritual needs as women?
One of my areas of study, marine sciences, has seen a break in the male domination to sometimes a 50-50 representation of women in some grad programs. But there are still rough waters. In 2019, on World Oceans Day, the theme was “gender and the ocean.” According to Robin Nelson, a biological anthropologist at Santa Clara: “We frame science as this idea that folks with the best ideas, folks who are willing to work hard, are those who are going to succeed.” But absent safeguards protecting vulnerable scientists, she said, “those folks who could be super talented, wonderful scientists get pushed out of our fields.”
Peter Girguis, an oceanographer at Harvard University, echoes this. “In the absence of gender equality, we’re doing mediocre science,” he said.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter proclaimed "Women's History Week" in March to coincide with International Women's Day. Seven years later, Congress declared all of March to be "Women's History Month."
There are problems with “a month,” as Kimberly A. Hamlin, an associate professor of history at Miami University in Ohio and author of “Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener,” states. “But Women's History Month unintentionally reinforces the prevailing idea that when women do something, it is called ‘women's history,’ and when men do something it is called ‘history.’ Women's History Month also allows state school boards and curricular committees to feel as though they are including women without doing enough to update textbooks and state standards, ultimately undermining the very goals that reformers and historians aimed to achieve with the designation.”
I clearly remember when I was the only “guy” in the women’s literature class I took at the University of Arizona, where I eventually received a BA and BS. I learned so much about women in history, not just female writers.
We are talking 102 years ago when the 19th amendment granted some women the right to vote (a number of other laws prohibited Native American women, Black women, Asian American women, and Latinx women from voting, among others).
In that lit class, I learned a bit of historical misstatement: What was deemed the first expedition to sail around the globe on a voyage to study and sample the world’s oceans occurred in 1872. Of the 243 people on board the Challenger, not one was a woman.
However, it wasn’t the first. Nearly a century before the Challenger voyage, a woman — Jeanne Baret — sailed around the world on a scientific expedition of her own. She disguised herself as a male assistant on a 1766 voyage led by a French explorer to document plants and ecosystems in distant countries. Baret is the first woman on record to have circumnavigated the globe.
Paul K. Haeder is a novelist, journalist, educator and author of “Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam,” Cirque Press.