WASHINGTON — March is Women’s History Month, and while some question the need for the annual event, others in the Washington area have first-hand experience they say shows the clear need to keep fighting for women’s rights, and for a planned new memorial to suffragettes along the Occoquan River in Fairfax County.
Edith Mayo is curator emeritus of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and she says she came to that job with a “bee in my bonnet” about better showcasing the contributions of American women. She wanted to make sure women never “become invisible again.”
“I had a male colleague who came up to me after some women’s history event that we had had at the Smithsonian, and he demanded to know when were we going to have some men’s history,” Mayo told the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors this month.
“He was tired of all this women’s history, and [asked] ‘When are we going to have a museum for men’s history’. And I said, ‘Well, we already have one. It’s called the Smithsonian,” she said.
She is among those pushing for the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial, which would be on the site of the old Occoquan Workhouse in the Lorton Prison complex, where dozens of women were taken after a 1917 protest at the White House.
“The public has absolutely no idea that these women had to struggle for the right to vote,” Mayo says. “Everybody knows that the civil rights activists were jailed and maltreated…because it came in every night on your television set.”
She says the reports of how the women were treated at the facility were a real turning point that helped get the 19th Amendment added to the constitution a few years later.
“People don’t know that these women were jailed, that they were maltreated in every conceivable way, and that they were part of a struggle that developed the strategies and tactics … that became the model for all the rest of the rights movements in the 20th century,” Mayo says.
Members of the Board of Supervisors, like Penny Gross, shared their own takes on how much has changed in just the last few decades.
“In the early ‘70s, women staff members were not allowed on the floor of the U.S. Senate,” she recalls. “When they finally allowed women on the floor, you could not wear pants. You had to wear skirts and hose. This was in the U.S. Senate in the 1970s. People don’t believe that today,” Gross says.
“We have not won all the fights … It wasn’t over for them in 1917. It wasn’t over for women in the 1970s. It’s not over now,” Gross says.
In the early 1980s, Supervisor John Foust says his wife had trouble getting a full time job after finishing her OB-GYN residency.
“She was hired by a practice of three men. They actually found her a part time job because they didn’t think women would want to go to a female OB-GYN,” he says.