The Hamilton Live, an event venue in Washington, D.C., assumed a vibration of a higher order on March 19, 2016. The softly lit, lower-level space located two blocks from the White House hummed with a palpable energy, and it is only when I look back on the experience that I feel fully its life-altering import. The verve that day was set high on the shoulders of history—the past stories of our nation that formed a more perfect union. And that esteemed history was entirely female.
The National Women’s History Project (NWHP) hosted a luncheon to celebrate National Women’s History Month and honor sixteen women who exemplified the 2016 theme, “Working to Form a More Perfect Union: Honoring Women in Public Service and Government.” Honorees were selected from a pool of more than 70 candidates. I nominated Captain Dorothy C. Stratton, about whom I wrote in my book, The Deans’ Bible: Five Purdue Women and their Quest for Equality, published by Purdue University Press. Following a four-ballot selection process, the NWHP board of directors selected Stratton.
Stratton was Purdue University’s first full-time dean of women from 1933-1942. She took a leave of absence from Purdue to serve in World War II as the director of the Women’s Reserve of the United States Coast Guard, which she ingeniously named SPARs from the coast guard motto, Semper Paratus—Latin for Always Ready.
The nautical meaning of SPAR relates to a supporting beam of a ship. The coast guard women were just that—a support—as they took over the men’s stateside military jobs, so the men could go overseas for combat duty. When the war ended in 1947, 11,000 SPARs had served under Stratton’s leadership.
In 2012 First Lady Michelle Obama commissioned a coast guard cutter in honor of Stratton. It was the first time in history that a Legend-class National Security Cutter was named after a woman, and the first time that a first lady sponsored a military ship. Today, the Cutter Stratton protects America’s shoreline.
In the 1941 Purdue University yearbook, the Debris, Dean of Women Stratton, age forty-one, was quoted: “To be interesting, do interesting things.” Stratton lived to be 107, fully living out her mantra. She passed away in 2006. When the war ended, Stratton became the director of personnel for the International Monetary Fund. Through the 1950s, she was the executive director of the Girl Scouts of America. She then served as the representative for the International Federation of University Women at the United Nations. Stratton most certainly worked to form a more perfect union through her efforts in public service and government.
Nine of the NWHP 2016 National Women’s History Month honorees are living and most attended the luncheon to accept their acclaim. Their presence and words at the podium created an atmosphere that buoyed the audience.
Two of the elder honorees inched across the stage pushing walkers. We soon learned they were not frail flowers. When they spoke at the lectern, their strong voices and powerful declarations of gratitude were a juxtaposition—a lesson against judging a woman by her cover and an admonition against ageism.
Honoree Sister Mary Madonna Ashton, age ninety-two, is the former Minnesota Commissioner of Health who helped pass landmark legislation outlawing smoking in public places. Testifying for days against the tobacco industry, her success on behalf of the state of Minnesota started a nationwide movement. She also addressed the AIDS epidemic, forcing the closure of bathhouses where the disease was spread and instituting mandatory protections of the community’s blood supply.
Astronomer Nancy Grace Roman, age ninety, was the first executive at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and is known as the “Mother of Hubble” for her contributions to establish the Hubble Space Telescope. Roman’s career was groundbreaking as a woman scientist. She discovered the first clues to the evolution of the Milky Way galaxy, mapped the sky at 67 centimeters, and helped improve the accuracy of measurements to the distance of the moon.
Sonia Pressman Fuentes, age eighty-seven, was a cofounder of the National Organization for Women and the first woman attorney in the Office of the General Counsel at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). She articulated and enforced the EEOC’s interpretation of the sex discrimination prohibitions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Fuentes had immigrated to the United States as a child to escape the Holocaust.
Honoree Bernice Sandler is the “Godmother of Title IX.” She also coined the term “chilly climate.” Despite holding a doctorate degree, Sandler was unable to obtain a full-time faculty position because of the sexism facing women in academia in the 1960s. Although Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination in employment based on sex, it excluded educational institutions. Using an obscure executive order prohibiting sex discrimination by federal contractors, Sandler filed the first federal sex discrimination lawsuits against every college with federal contracts, about 250 in all. This lawsuits drew the attention of Congresswoman Edith Green, who assembled the first congressional hearing on sex discrimination in education and employed Sandler as an expert. The idea for a law banning sex discrimination in federally funded education programs was born. Title IX was signed into law in 1972.
Among the women who were honored posthumously were Daisy Bates, the civil rights organizer and leader of the Little Rock School integration in 1957, and Oveta Culp Hobby, the World War II director of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs) and first secretary of the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Hobby was a peer and friend of Stratton.
Photos of the honorees appear on a commemorative poster and their stories are written down in the NWHP Gazette, available for purchase on the NWHP website for individuals, educators, and groups to recognize and celebrate women’s historical contributions.
More than 300 women have been honored by the NWHP since its inception in 1980. Many of the women selected have been outliers. They courageously stood apart from the milquetoast crowd and the status quo. By following their inner callings, they changed social stereotypes, cultural pressures, discriminatory attitudes, and civil injustices. Each woman bucked some sort of system and won—perhaps not a victory for her immediate private ambition—but, like a New World explorer, a triumph that would be realized in the distance where the next wave of female foot soldiers would trek.
Each NWHP honoree changed perceptions of women’s capabilities. She whittled out new pathways for the downtrodden. She invented. She created. She changed laws. She changed attitudes. She changed herself. She changed America.
Of course, all that change was not easy. Change never is.
Thank you to the National Women’s History Project for writing women back into history. When women’s history is told on equal footing to that of men’s, then we, indeed, form a more perfect union. It’s a vibration of a higher order.
How National Women’s History Month Began
Molly Murphy MacGregor, executive director and cofounder of the National Women’s History Project, was a key force in establishing March as National Women’s History Month. When MacGregor was a California high school teacher in 1972, a student asked about the women’s movement. Having no answer, MacGregor was spurred to educate herself about women’s history, but she was shocked to find no suitable sources.
In 1978, MacGregor and others on the Education Task Force of the Sonoma County Commission on the Status of Women created National Women’s History Week for the county.
The week of March 8 was chosen because that date is International Women’s Day. The following year, MacGregor participated in a women’s history institute at Sarah Lawrence College. MacGregor shared the story of Sonoma’s women’s history week, and other women at the conference were inspired to create a women’s history week in their own communities.
Jimmy Carter issued the first presidential proclamation declaring the week of March 8, 1980, as National Women’s History Week. In 1987, galvanized by the fact that fourteen states had already declared March as National Women’s History Month, MacGregor and other women lobbied Congress to declare March, nationwide, as National Women’s History Month.
For a full list of 2016 National Women’s History Month honorees, see the NWHP website.
Video: “Dorothy Stratton & the Spars: The Legend Continues” by Ed Metz https://vimeo.com/14188229
The Deans’ Bible Book Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zh7Pb6RUVUk
Former Purdue Dean of Women Honored in D.C., WLFI TV-18 http://wlfi.com/2016/03/20/former-purdue-dean-of-women-honored-in-d-c/