Former SRJC instructor and founder of Women’s History Month celebrates 24th year

Michael Shufro, Staff Writer

Women’s History Month, recognized in every major U.S. city today, first started when a small, inspired group of Santa Rosa women came together to make history.

In 1977 Molly MacGregor, then a women’s history instructor for the SRJC and Sonoma State University, knew her community needed change when students returned from multiple libraries in Petaluma reporting only three to seven books about women were available. MacGregor said the real kicker was “nobody had checked out the books for five to fifteen years!”

MacGregor envisioned community members and schoolchildren celebrating and recognizing significant women leaders from history. Over the following decade, MacGregor’s dream grew and grew, until in March of 1987 she celebrated, with people all across the nation, the first Women’s History Month.

In its 24th year this March, Women’s History Month celebrates two major centennial anniversaries for women. International Women’s Day, Mar. 8, commemorates 100 years since it was first honored, when more than one million women and men rallied across Europe and demanded women have the basic rights to work, vote and hold public office. For Americans, 2011 marks the 100th year since California voters granted women’s suffrage by a margin of one vote. California women won the right to vote nearly a decade before the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920.

MacGregor’s dream formed around the plan to create a women’s history week in Sonoma County schools. She asked school officials to mark the week sometime near March 8 recognizing International Women’s Day. Low community resources and financial backing plagued MacGregor, but she utilized the resources available and convinced many women from a variety of career backgrounds to visit schools for free to talk about what it was like to be a woman. In 1978, Sonoma County celebrated the first Women’s History Week.

MacGregor wrote about her success to the Sarah Lawrence College and argued her plan needed to go national. Then in the summer of 1979, Sarah Lawrence invited MacGregor to speak at an annual event held by the Women’s History Institute for 19 days, which she said “changed the rest of my life.”

In 1980 one phone call put MacGregor’s plan on a whole new stage. “I remember answering the phone and hearing on the other end: ‘This is the White House calling for Molly McGregor.’ I said ‘Yes, one moment,’ and put the phone on hold to catch my breath,” Macgregor said. Sarah Weddington, a special assistant to President Carter, wanted to issue a National Women’s History week resolution.

That same year, MacGregor co-founded and became the executive director of National Women’s History Project, a non-profit organization based in Santa Rosa.

“The reason why Women’s History Month is so important is it shows us all these role models—thousands of them—and there always has been, but the information was withheld or distorted,” MacGregor said. “We had to unlearn all this garbage we’d been taught before we could see each other for who we are, what we do and build on that courage which makes us. That’s why our theme for 2011 is our strength.”

In the next few weeks MacGregor plans to promote NWHP in Buffalo, Albany and Arkansas.

But MacGregor wasn’t the first Sonoma County woman to stand up and support women’s rights. Before the turn of the 20th century, when Sonoma County was largely farm country, Sarah Latimer Finely was the press chairman for the Political Equality Association of Sonoma County, and wrote articles supporting women’s rights. Finely’s son, Ernest, years later went on to start the Press Democrat Newspaper, where Sonoma County residents read some of the area’s female writers for the first time. Ernest and his wife, Ruth Finley, eventually set up a foundation that led to the Finley Community Center, Park and Aquatic Complex, still influencing and shaping Sonoma County’s community today.

The SRJC will take part in the celebration this March by showcasing a calendar of events including lectures, film screenings and live performances. Rhonda Findling, an EOPS counselor on campus, chairs the Committee for Women’s History Month. Findling looks forward to celebrating the female leaders who’ve come before her, but hopes W.H.M. reminds people that all women in some way still face prejudice, inequality or violence.

“Women’s History Month represents the ability to correct the wrongs that my generation of women grew up with,” Findling said. “We didn’t appear in history books, I learned about Alice Paul [a key figure in the suffrage movement] from [the film] ‘Iron Jawed Angels.'”

Findling’s committee of about 40 board members includes students, staff members, business managers and faculty members spanning several disciplines.

“Even though people believe there’s equality, there isn’t,” Findling said. “Look at the news. The House voted yesterday to stop funding Planned Parenthood. We put on these events for students. We try and tie Women’s History Month into several things going on around us. We want to make them very accessible and free. Everyone is invited; we want men too.”

Findling encourages all people to be more outspoken about their feelings about women. “Sex trafficking is becoming more lucrative than drug trafficking. Domestic violence is still a major challenge. Our sisters are still incredibly oppressed,” Findling said about women around the globe.

While this March marks a 100-year milestone for California’s women voters, some like Diana Ruiz, president of Women’s Global Leadership Initiative, look to the future. Ruiz, who founded WGLI in Sonoma County, imagines a day in the future when all women around the world are able to vote, contribute on every level in society and be in offices that have generally been held by men.

“Women’s History Month brings to the forefront how women have contributed to society and in doing so encourages present day women to see the success of the past and want to continue to bring their ideas to the future,” Ruiz said. “The organization serves as a kind of incubator where these new ideas and initiatives can spring forth.”

WGLI will be co-sponsoring several women’s history related events this March with the SRJC including a series of lectures based around conflict resolution and overcoming indirect aggression among women.

Ruiz encourages students to volunteer or intern for the organization. “We have volunteers that range from 17 years of age to about 60, and allies throughout the community who help us spread the word; that community is growing everyday.”

WGLI has sunk deep roots in the Bay Area as well as Croatia. WGLI is currently building a lecture series model expected to be complete in one year. “We’ll be able to take this to UC Berkeley, San Francisco State and campuses across California,” Ruiz said.

Ruiz plans to take this same model internationally. “In 10 years we’ll have global partners throughout the world—in Afghanistan, Turkey, remote areas of Africa and South America. The possibilities are endless,” she said.

Ruiz’s message to women everywhere: “Know that your ideas are valuable. They will come alive when you share them with others. The key is recognizing what is most important to you, stepping forward and making it your own. That is where success lies. The rest will follow.”