Celebrating Women’s History Month

The Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution, and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum join together each March to commemorate and celebrate the vital role of women in American History through the celebration of Women’s History Month.

My past six months at ACRL have taught me more about library “culture” (however you wish to define that term) than my many years in the stacks. One of the things that I find fascinating about our field are the sincere efforts to embrace diversity and equity and inclusion by a group – women — that has been marginalized for centuries. Judith Shulevitz underscored this marginalization in a recent essay in The Atlantic titled “I found the Feminism I was Looking for in the Lost Writings of a 17th Century Priest.” In it, she explored the life and writings of François Poulain de la Barre. Poulain, as he was called, was a Cartesian and his essays about women are rooted in Cartesian skepticism. Poulain held views about women so far ahead of his time that he influenced thought leaders of the 20th century. Simone de Beauvoir drew on his ideas in her book, The Second Sex (1949), and, using Poulain, she made an essential point that “one is not born, but rather becomes, woman.”

Another way to put this is that culture (that word again) determines how we think about who is male and who is female, and that there are consequences that unfurl from that designation, including ideas of beauty, of fear, of intelligence, and of one’s place in society. But the sentences that Shulevitz wrote that shone brightest for me were these – “What [Poulain] saw was prejudice masquerading as the natural order of things. And the oldest and most entrenched [emphasis mine] prejudice was against women and their work.”  

This is one reason why celebrating Women’s History Month is so important. The “natural order of things” is many times invisible. We breathe it in and move through our lives in a state of assumption, and those who wish to change this order will meet resistance, some of it violent, because the extant order, no matter how imperfect, provides people a compass for their lives.  Most of us can find an example of an order of things that was inherently unjust. 

My own example comes from my earliest library memory, which is the public library in Jackson, Mississippi. It was not until I was studying history as an adult that I learned about an episode that occurred in Jackson’s main library, an episode that should be better known. Nine students from the local HBCU, Tougaloo College, four of them women, quietly and respectfully entered the library in March 1961, searching for books that they knew were not available at the segregated library. Only those who lived in Mississippi in the 1960s can fully understand the risk that they were taking, the courage that was required for such action. When the police arrived, the nine refused to leave, and they were arrested for breaching the peace. They were jailed, went on trial, and were found guilty. But, as a result of their actions, the NAACP filed suit against the Jackson Public Library and, in 1962, the library was ordered to desegregate.

Peace can be seen as a perpetuation of the natural orders of things and, sometimes, we must breach the peace for equity, diversity, and inclusion. So, during this month for Women’s History, I honor the bravery of Ethel Sawyer, Geraldine Edwards Hollis, Evelyn Pierce, and Janice Jackson who refused to accept the natural order.

I also wish to recognize the amazing women of the academic and research library community, who devote themselves to preserving the materials that allow us to remember the story of the Tougaloo Nine. Your efforts enable us to learn a bit more about what it takes to create a just society, all of which is an essential part of what makes us human. Thank you for all you do.

– Jay Malone, ACRL Executive Director