OPINION: Women’s History Month centers cisgender, heterosexual women. That’s a problem

This is an opinion article. Any views expressed belong solely to the author and are not representative of The Cluster.

From Susan B. Anthony to Hillary Clinton, most so-called heroes of Women’s History Month made great leaps for women in America. But they have something else in common, too: they’re white, cisgender, heterosexual women whose work primarily benefited other white, cisgender, heterosexual women.

There may be a place for them in our celebrations of women’s contributions to society and culture, but they shouldn’t be the only ones whose names we remember and whose likenesses we commodify every March.

Yes, they’re women who stood up for women’s rights — but those were largely the rights of women who were not marginalized on other bases, privileged women who inhabited bodies that are considered palatable and worthy of respect. These were white, educated, able-bodied women with traditional white families who advocated for other women who looked and lived the way they did.

While womanhood and greatness are not measured by the amount of oppression a person has faced, it’s important that we also honor the women and feminine-presenting people who are marginalized by factors other than cisgender womanhood. We must celebrate transgender and non-binary women and femmes, queer women and femmes, disabled women and femmes and women and femmes of color, because their history is women’s history, too.

Where are the inspirational posters, children’s books and Instagram stories celebrating women who live their lives beyond the margins? They have contributed just as much to our lives as the women we are asked to elevate every year, and yet they are erased from our collective consciousness.

Where is the remembrance of Sylvia Rivera, the Hispanic trans woman who fought for drag queens, homeless youth, trans people and queer people in the criminal justice system at the height of the gay liberation movement in New York City?

Or Marsha P. Johnston, the Black trans woman who, along with Rivera and others, led the Stonewall riots of 1969 — the major catalyst for modern LGBTQIA+ legal rights?

Why doesn’t Women’s History Month commemorate Lani Ka’ahumanu, who pioneered the movement for bisexual visibility and acceptance?

Or Edie Windsor, the lead plaintiff in the 2013 Supreme Court case that was the precursor to overturning the Defense of Marriage Act and legalizing marriage equality?

Or Aimee Stephens, the funeral worker who was fired after coming out as a trans woman and took her case to the Supreme Court, where the judges ruled in 2020 that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 includes LGBTQIA+ folks?

Where is the recognition for Laverne Cox, the Black trans actress and activist who broke barriers for trans people in Hollywood and continues to advocate for the rights of all gender-diverse folks?

These women did not fight for women’s liberation in ways that satisfied those in power. They did not ask nicely or settle for incremental shifts in performative politics. They centered women who do not have the privileges of identifying with the gender they were assigned at birth or meeting the expectation of heterosexuality. They demanded sweeping change and fought for the liberation of marginalized people.

The experience of womanhood is not exclusive to people who were assigned female at birth. The rights of women are not, should not and cannot be considered fully realized when they only extend to white, cisgender, heterosexual women who align with predominant social scripts. And Women’s History Month should not come as a comfortable reminder of nice ladies whose work made your life easier but as a challenge to engage with what’s left to accomplish.

This Women’s History Month, decenter the dominant narrative of womanhood that is most often presented to us. Consider the work, art and legacies of queer, Black, Indigenous, disabled, Muslim, immigrant, trans and non-binary women, of sex workers, activists and unhoused women, of women who do not speak your language and do not come from your country.

And do not let yourself be fooled into only honoring women who embody popular notions of “productivity” or women who have achieved fame; Women’s History Month is not just about celebrating women who have provided a service or made a sacrifice but about honoring all women who live among you and who lived before you. Women do not have to give you something to deserve your respect.

Reflect on women’s lives — and think, too, about why some women are not presented as worthy of remembrance.