Women have had various roles throughout history; some thrived in matrilineal societies, some were enslaved and separated from their families, many overcame harsh obstacles finding freedom, lifting up their voices, and leading communities. Now we have women leading in Congress, Cabinet positions, and the Vice Presidency of the United States of America. This month, as part of the Hear Us, See Us series, we acknowledge women from various walks of life across the centuries that have shaped this Nation. You are invited to hear her and see her—this is HERstory.
Women’s History Month started as a national celebration in 1981 when Congress passed Pub. L. 97-28 which authorized and requested the President to proclaim the week beginning March 7, 1982, as “Women’s History Week.” Congress continued to pass joint resolutions designating a week in March as “Women’s History Week" for the next five years. In 1987 after being petitioned by the National Women’s History Project, Congress passed Pub. L. 100-9 which designated the month of March 1987 as “Women’s History Month.” Since 1995, presidents have issued a series of annual proclamations designating the month of March as “Women’s History Month.” These proclamations celebrate the contributions women have made to the United States and recognize the specific achievements women have made over the course of American history in a variety of fields.
Let me take you on a journey through time to see how the roles of women have changed or stayed the same in the history of our nation.
Indigenous people have lived within the Chesapeake region for more than 6,000 years. The Piscataway Chiefdom encompassed much of what is now present-day Washington D.C. and Southern Maryland, with a network of villages along the Potomac River and other waterways since at least AD 1300. Piscataway Park protects a significant archeological site known as Moyaone, the capital of the Piscataway Chiefdom.
Mary Kittamaquund (c. 1634 – c. 1654 or 1700) was the daughter of Kittamaquund, Tayac of the Piscataway, and Mary Piscataway (Kittamaquund). Her father sent her to be educated by English colony leaders, so she could be a liaison between the two cultures. Years later she was married to a colonist, who tried to take control of the land upon her father’s death. Her true fate is unknown. Some scholars think she died in childbirth, others believe she may have left her husband and resumed her matrilineal role within her Piscataway family and community.
Today, Clan Mothers are critical to the leadership of the Piscataway people. Their wisdom, knowledge, and experience are necessary to teach the upcoming generations about their rich heritage and promote cultural pride so that the strength of the Piscataway will continue to thrive and be successful.
18th Century (the 1700s)
Cate Sharper was an African American who was enslaved during the 18th century in the Accokeek area. At the age of 8, Cate was brought with her mistress as part of her dowry when she married. Cate was likely about 16 when she married Tom Sharper—a free African American laborer—who would have worked for poorer planters who could not afford to buy a slave. Tom and Cate had a son, who also was enslaved since a child’s freedom status was determined by the freedom status of the mother. Cate Sharper is portrayed at the National Colonial Farm. She represents the women who were not included in history books but whose names and stories should be remembered and told.
19th Century (the 1800s)
A historical icon is a person who is revered for their impact, this is her story.
Congresswoman Frances Payne Bolton (March 29, 1885 - March 9, 1977)
Congresswoman Frances Payne Bolton served on the House committee for Indian Affairs during the 76th Congress. While a member of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, she purchased a 500-acre farm across the Potomac River from Mount Vernon to preserve the view George Washington had from his back porch. She then founded the Accokeek Foundation which donated that land to the federal government to help create Piscataway Park, preserving six miles of Potomac River shoreline on the traditional, ancestral homeland of the Piscataway People. She also initiated The Bolton Act, which appropriated funds for nursing schools and demonstrated the Congresswoman’s sympathy for African-American civil rights, as the Act stipulated that funding be allocated without regard to race or ethnicity. She said, “What we see is that America cannot be less than herself once she awakes to the realization that freedom does not mean license and that license can be the keeping of others from sharing that freedom.”
This historical pioneer changed the face of politics, listen to her story.
In 2018, the first Native American women were elected to Congress—Democrats Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland.
Sharice Davids became the first Democrat elected to represent a Kansas congressional district in a decade. She is a member of the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) people, and an enrolled member of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin. Congresswoman Davids earned her law degree from Cornell Law School in 2010 and began her law career. However, her dedication and strength go beyond the halls of the Capitol building. She also had a career competing in mixed martial arts (MMA) as an amateur in 2006 and professional in 2013. She shifted her focus away from MMA to travel the U.S. and live on Native American reservations to work with the communities on economic and community development programs.
This moment in history that has been a long time coming. This is her story.
Glass ceilings do not block one's vision. This history maker shows that they can be broken. This is her story.
The accomplishments of women and their roles throughout history show that their contributions are important. As we celebrate the strides that have been made, let us not forget about those whose voices have been lost to history. It is time for women to be seen and heard. Their stories need to be told.