Public Affairs

History in the Making

March 29, 2011
By Elizabeth Chapin

The 1970s grassroots women’s movement throughout Sonoma County and the Sonoma State community was influential to the national movement.The national recognition of Women’s History Month every March can be traced back to a class project at Sonoma State University in the early 1970s. Students in a women’s history course at SSU created a slideshow highlighting the contributions of women to American History. Motivated by its meaning, this small group continued to present the slideshow throughout Sonoma County and California.

Inspired by the success of that project and their studies at SSU, alumnae Molly McGregor, Bette Morgan, Paula Hammett and many other women worked with the Sonoma County Commission on the Status of Women to create Women's History Week, with a focus on local schools and celebrations. As their efforts became known on a national level, others took up the charge and successfully lobbied the White House and Congress for federal recognition of Women’s History Month each March. McGregor is now executive director and co-founder of the National Women’s History Project, a part of the movement that pushes for the recognition of women’s history.

“Sonoma State had a profound effect on the women’s movement,” said Hammett, who worked on the slideshow project with McGregor and was also a co-founder. “The faculty was nurturing and supportive, really pushing us to take our ideas beyond the classroom.”

Due in part to the women’s movement and its passionate advocates like McGregor and Hammett, much has changed for women in the workplace and the classroom since the early 1970s. In fact, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that the percentage of female undergraduates rose from 42 percent in 1970 to 56 percent in 2000, and today remains about 57 percent. The NCES also reports that in 2001, women surpassed men in graduate school enrollment.

As a result of this academic progress, more women hold high-level occupations that were once stereotypically associated with men. According to a recent report by Forbes, women now outnumber men in management positions in many key fields including finance, advertising, health services, and social/community services.

Forbes also reports that women now outnumber men as medical scientists, illustrating the ground they have gained in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, collectively known as the STEM fields. However, in spite of a ten-fold increase of college women in STEM majors since the 1970s, they are still underrepresented in the sciences. Currently, women comprise only about 12 percent of the workforce in science and engineering.

The California State University is tackling this setback by sparking young women’s interests in STEM fields and presenting them with opportunities to realize their potential.

For example, future teachers at Cal State Fullerton spend hours tutoring at a mathematics summer “camp” for girls; Cal State Long Beach’s School of Engineering recently took 30 fifth-grade girls to explore the Johnson Space Center in Houston, thanks to a NASA grant; and students in Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s women’s engineering club host hands-on workshops at local elementary schools.

These are just some of the examples of what CSU campuses are doing to increase women’s roles in STEM. This not only sparks young women’s interests, but it also gives them real-life role models – which McGregor believes increases the likelihood that they will set higher goals.

A teaching credential student helps with math problems in Cal State Fullerton’s Project MISS summer program.“In addition to the STEM fields, recognizing the achievements of women in all facets of life has a huge impact on the development of self-respect and new opportunities for girls and young women,” McGregor says. “Recognizing history prepares the way for making history.”