Women’s history ‘a marathon’

My friend Meghan and I were walking through Washington Square Park (near NYU) last weekend. As part of Women’s History Month, several parks throughout the city will be hosting exhibits, discussions and other events. A student handed us a flier: “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.”

It is this year’s theme.

“No to be a bitch, but I think Women’s History Month is slouching toward banality,” Meghan said. “I’m all for women’s history, of course. But if our history is a marathon, then isn’t this,” she indicated the leaflet, “just cheering from the sidelines?”

I understand how she feels.

Women’s History Month (celebrated during March every year, corresponding with International Women’s Day on March 8) sometimes feels like a two-sided coin: The honor it bestows marks, yet also perpetuates, our marginalization. On the face of human history, this month does not feel like not a beauty mark, but a scar. It’s a sign of past hurt and continued healing.

Making sure that the future’s history is better for women – through higher education, parenting, befriending, mentoring, and employing – takes sustained, continued effort all year, over the years. By cultivating better thinkers, more reliable forms of scholarship, higher quality art, more compassionate citizens, and more just systems we can take a stronger hand in making women’s future history.

I said something like that. We continued our walk.

We came across a table selling photos of the historic suffragette March on Washington on March 3, 1913. I bought one; I wanted it was a reminder of how far America has come in the last century, and of how much American women have been at the forefront of pushing the international rights of women forward.

“Why are they wearing breastplates and laurels?” Meghan asked.

I explained that they were dressed as Uncle Sam’s much older sister, Columbia the first historic personification of the United States of America.

From the 18th century until the early decades of the 20th, Columbia was “the gem of the ocean,” a regal personage whose breast-plates curved out of her striped or starred or swirling skirts with all the majesty of a shield. At the birth of the nation, “Hail, Columbia!” was first composed for the inauguration of President Washington, until 1931 when the “Star-Spangled Banner” was an named the unofficial anthem.

America was Columbia in the same way that England was Britannia and France was Marianne. America’s capital is the District of Columbia; New York City’s great early private university was Columbia College (now University).

That’s why the birth of recording and film industries are named Columbia Records and Columbia pictures. It’s why a lady with the torch is at the start of our movies.

But as skirt lengths rose, and corsets and bras were tossed to the wind, Columbia fell out of favor.

“Why?” Meghan asked.

“Women got the vote.”


“And we were becoming too powerful. We had to be reminded of who was still the head of this country.”

“Uncle Sam?”


She was blown away. She had no idea.

As Meghan and I walked beneath the Arc de Triomf-esque structure that Washington Square is known for, I wondered: maybe Meghan would have never known about Columbia our country’s mother if it weren’t for Women’s History Month.

What a sad thought.

Sarah T. Schwab is a Sunday OBSERVER contributor and Fredonia State graduate. Send comments to


or view her Web site at www.SarahTSchwab.com