Women’s History Month is celebrated during March in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia. The monthly recognition originated with the first International Women’s Day in 1911. In 1978, the school district of Sonoma, California held a Women’s History Week, designed around International Women’s Day (March 8). The event inspired a 15-day women’s history conference at Sarah Lawrence College, in collaboration with the Women’s Action Alliance and the Smithsonian Institution. That event led to a push to create a national Women’s History Week and by 1980, President Jimmy Carter proclaimed the week of March 8 as National Women’s History Week. In 1987, after the National Women’s History Project petitioned Congress, March was designated Women’s History Month and has been annually proclaimed so by U.S. presidents ever since.
That said, women – who comprise a larger percentage of the college student population – are more likely to live in poverty, suffer from work and homecare overload, and earn significantly less than their male counterparts. And the impact is even harsher on women of color. While we applaud the advances made over the years that allow our girls to see all the possibilities that life holds for them as leaders, activists, and change-makers, there remains a long road to travel until we see true equality. That the Equal Rights Amendment – which would guarantee legal gender equality – has still yet to be ratified, speaks volumes about how society views women’s place in the world.
The women who generously shared their stories below provide insight and perspective about their experiences as women – both at Carolina and beyond:
“Lifting up women’s voices” is something I have striven to do since I joined the Carolina faculty 35 years ago, and I mean that literally as well as figuratively. As a soprano and a member of the music faculty, I have sought out female composers, especially lesser-known artists, to showcase in my performances, my recordings, and in my teaching throughout my career. As someone classically trained in opera and art song, I have always felt a responsibility to shine a light on the underrepresented, including not just women but also African American and avant-garde composers. And what a joy it has been to share the works of such outstanding composers as Libby Larsen, Tania Leon, and Penka Kouneva (to name a few female composers whose works I premiered or recorded) with a wider audience!
When I joined the UNC music faculty in 1987, I was one of only three women in the department who were tenure-track. Thankfully, much has changed since then throughout academe. Today, 37% of the faculty in the College of Arts & Sciences at Carolina are female and 64% of them are tenured or tenure-track.
Over the years, during my Carolina career—first as director of UNC Opera and voice faculty to chair of the department of music, then senior associate dean for fine arts and humanities, and now dean of the College (the first from the fine arts)—I have always made it a priority to mentor and elevate other women. And I am grateful for those who did this for me, like Karen Gil, then dean of the College, who appointed me chair of the music department and later brought me into the dean’s office as senior associate dean. I am grateful for other female mentors like Gillings School of Public Health Dean Barbara Rimer, former English department chair Beverly Taylor, and Gillian Cell, the first female dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. And I’d like to also mention two family members who have greatly influenced me: my late mother, Ruth Rhodes, a high school English teacher, who always emphasized the importance of education and who inspired me with her love of writing, reading, and Shakespeare; and my sister Robin Dailey, who has given her professional life to K-12 public education as a long-time principal (named Principal of the Year) and now a consultant for Pitt County schools.
Sometimes it just takes a few words of encouragement—so many women undervalue themselves and their accomplishments and benefit from someone showing them their strengths. Sometimes it takes championing their causes to those in authority or recommending them for leadership positions, training, or other professional development. Sometimes it takes restructuring the system to allow more opportunities for promotion, as I recently did in the College: by shortening the length of terms of department chair and director appointments, we are providing more opportunities for others to step into these leadership roles.
In 2019, my daughter, Susannah Stewart, graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill, and it has been rewarding to see that she has entered a different world than when I graduated from Carolina. I am so impressed by the female students I meet every day who are excelling in male-dominated fields such as computer science and chemistry, creating clubs and support groups to share resources, and breaking down barriers that impede their dreams.
Here’s to a future where we no longer need a “Women’s History Month” to recognize our accomplishments!
As a woman in leadership, I understand the importance of my existence in the professional world. Those before me have fought to break ground so that I can climb the ladder of success. However, it is my responsibility to keep the door open for those in my footsteps, which is why I mentor young ladies within my field to help them understand and give them tools to climb their ladders. I also celebrate other women in leadership and encourage us all to keep moving forward to equality, equity, and diversity in the workforce at all levels.
I am a Latina professor, a teacher, and scholar whose research and teaching focus on gender and sexuality, and the current chair of the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies. My experience in all of these aspects involves being proud of the work that UNC students and faculty are doing while constantly navigating the tension between a commitment to feminist values and principles and the reality of working within a large institution.
Toward the end of my second year working at Carolina, in Spring 2013, a UNC alumna and current student filed a complaint with the Department of Education for UNC’s failure to uphold the mandates of Title IX, specifically in regards to protecting students from sexual assault. That was an important moment both locally and nationally as the students launched a nationwide movement to hold universities accountable for gender-based violence. The campaign offered faculty and staff an opportunity to follow the leadership of current students and alumnae and to name and attempt to dismantle enduring systems of inequality and privilege.
I am grateful for the continuous opportunities to learn from and follow the lead of student activists who have passed through my classroom – from campaigns to combat gender-based violence to organizing for the visibility and equality of undocumented students to seeking a true accounting for the legacy of anti-Blackness and settler colonialism intimately connected to UNC’s history. These students and campaigns reflect an engagement with the history of women of color activism and theorizing that is a cornerstone of my own pedagogy and research.
At the same time, I am continuously aware of the tension inherent in being a part of a scholarly discipline whose roots lay unequivocally in feminist activism but which has now established a (sometimes tenuous) foothold in contemporary academia. While one of the joys of being a feminist scholar is the relevance of my research and teaching, I frequently feel pulled in too many directions at once and I often worry about where I should invest my time and energy. What would make the most impact on the lives of students, faculty, and staff at Carolina – would working to diversify senior leadership be a solution? Would raising awareness about the continued gender-based pay inequity among faculty be a step in the right direction? Or should I advocate for increased mental health resources for marginalized groups? These are the sorts of questions with which I grapple as I look for the best way to enact positive change on a small and larger scale.
My voice is from a woman immigrant whose career choices have been shaped by the harmony between motherhood and a professional career. This has meant a roller coaster of opportunities that I have embraced with strength and creative thinking. Navigating an educational system that considers minorities from a disadvantage point of view, it has been my goal to advocate for my sons and empower them to advocate for themselves.
As a former gymnast, I am used to making fear my best friend, which has pushed me to look for windows where doors have been shut. Today, I am looking through another window that someone opened for me. I am also aware that I have worked for what I have but also have learned that hard work is not enough. I have made it my goal to leave opened as many windows as I can and empower those who were made to believe that they were not good enough.
I am in what is commonly perceived, since the latter half of the 20th century, as a woman’s job. I am what is now called “admin support” and was formerly called “secretary” or “receptionist.”
Many elements of the job have remained unchanged; I am often the first person in the department to greet visitors. I maintain some records and handle quite a bit of office minutiae.
Other elements have changed. I haven’t used carbon paper this century and my boss has never asked me to type a letter for him. I am not expected to wear heels and hose. And unlike my mother’s generation, if anyone in my office was inappropriate, I have recourse.
Whether through luck or good workplace selection, I have never had to deal with harassment.
Perhaps, I have led a charmed life, or perhaps I have been cautious at the right times. The only time I was catcalled on campus, it was a woman asking about my hand fan (yes, it is that fabulous). Despite walks across campus in the dark, I may have been uneasy, but I have not been attacked. But I still check who is nearby when I am waiting after sunset. Just because I am in the lucky part of the statistics, doesn’t mean I am safe.
Although I am still early in my career, I already notice the “leaky pipeline” of women in STEM. As a graduate student, I feel lucky to have so many female peers, but the number drops dramatically when I look higher up the ladder toward women postdocs, faculty, and industry scientists. Every interaction is a reminder that STEM is still in many ways not a welcoming and equitable field for women and nonbinary people.
That said, I am so grateful for the ways women at Carolina, particularly in the Department of Chemistry, show up for one another. Mentorship from female faculty, both formal and informal, has been crucial to my well-being and success in graduate school. Similarly, alumnae who have moved to careers in industry have graciously made time to connect with me and share their stories. And of course, I am surrounded by so many incredible female graduate student and postdoctoral scholar peers who push the boundaries of chemistry every day while always providing support and camaraderie to each other. Fixing the leaky pipeline will require significant policy reform and societal change, but I don’t underestimate the impact of a network of women working to support one another.
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