Women’s History Month: Comparing Presidential Proclamations


Mr. Sauerwein is a former HNN Breaking News editor.

Women’s History Month has its roots in Women’s History Week, which was created by congressional resolution co-sponsored by Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) in 1981.  In 1987, the National Women’s History Project petitioned Congress for expansion of Women’s History Week to include the entire month of March.  They were successful and every year Congress passes a bipartisan resolution supporting National Women’s History Month.

In addition to a congressional resolution, the President issued a proclamation in recent years proclaiming March Women’s History Month.  These proclamations usually share examples of prominent women in our history.  They also place women in the political climate of the time.  For instance, former President Clinton’s 1999 proclamation cited examples of Nellie Bly, Harriet Tubman, and Rachel Carson, to name a few.  The proclamation also called on support for issues important to women’s rights, including equal access to education, equal pay, and affordable child care.  His 2000 proclamation followed the same tone as his 1999 one, citing examples of historical women, but also addressed political issues important to women.

Former President George W. Bush took a less political tone in his 2002 proclamation.  Unlike Clinton, Bush focused on historical women, including Sacagawea, Clara Barton, Helen Keller, and Lucretia Mott, as well as the contributions of women to America, but did not insert references to political issues of import to women.  He did place women in the context of the fight against terrorism in the wake of the September 11 attacks, but only to mention the contributions of women to that effort.  The absence of issues like equal pay may reflect the different politics of Clinton and Bush, but may also have been an attempt on the part of Bush to distance Women’s History Month from current politics to allow Americans of every political stripe to focus upon women’s contributions to our history.  Looking at some of his other proclamations, there is a clear difference between Bush's and Clinton's.  Clinton used his proclamations to campaign for issues important to women, which could be viewed as taking a more partisan tone, while Bush used his proclamations to focus solely on the contributions of women and how they make our nation great.

President Obama recently issued his first proclamation . Which model did it follow?   The President, like his two predecessors, focused largely on important figures.  However, his proclamation was more like Bush's, as Obama used the opportunity not to push issues but to illustrate the importance of women in our history. Like Clinton, he celebrated Rachel Carson, a liberal hero of the environmental movement. In addition, he profiled Ellen Swallow Richards, "the first woman in the United States to be accepted at a scientific school."

Obama’s proclamation differed significantly from Clinton's and Bush's in that while all three focused on historical women, Obama only mentioned women directly related to the theme of this year's celebration as established by the National Women’s History Project (NWHP), a non-profit educational organization that seeks to promote the contributions of women in history through programs and educational materials.  The theme this year, “Women Taking the Lead to Save our Planet,” meshes neatly with one of the administration's core agendas. There is no indication if the administration plans to orient every annual celebration around the theme identified by the NWHP.



Women’s History Month (Library of Congress)

Presidential Proclamations-Women’s History Month




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