NYSUT members celebrated Women’s History Month throughout March with a series of regional and statewide programs spotlighting the many contributions of women.
NYSUT Executive Vice President Jolene DiBrango participated in several events, including a #NYSUTchat on Twitter discussing the lack of women’s history in school curricula, and another celebrating the true story of 9to5, National Association of Working Women, a groundbreaking, women-led organization that inspired the 1980s film of the same name starring Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton.
Julia Reichert’s and Steven Bogner’s documentary 9to5: The Story of a Movement, chronicles the history of a group of clerical workers who joined together to advocate for better pay, advancement opportunities and an end to workplace sexual harassment in the early 1970s. In 1981, 9to5 partnered with SEIU and formed SEIU District 925, a nationwide labor union for office workers.
“Women are missing from our curriculums and that sparked my interest in telling this story,” said Reichert, noting that bringing class, gender and union history together is important. “Lots of union knowledge has been lost. This was a chance to bring it back, from a feminist perspective.”
The United Federation of Teachers’ Women’s Rights Committee and NYSUT’s Women’s Committee offered a free virtual screening of the documentary, and a follow-up panel discussion, in honor of Women’s History Month. Panelists included the filmmakers, DiBrango and Kim Cook and Lane Windham of the Worker Institute of Cornell Leadership Institute. UFT WRC members Victoria Primiano and Latrice Curry moderated.
Like many, Curry didn’t realize the 9 to 5 film and hit song was fact-based before watching the 9to5 documentary. For DiBrango, whose first job after college was as a secretary, the women’s experiences resonated. “I teared up watching this because I know the collective strength it must have taken for those women to speak up,” she said, recalling several instances of demeaning treatment and sexual harassment she faced in the workplace.
Cook, a 9to5 and District 925 organizer in the 1980s, discussed how they brought feminist sensibilities to unionizing. “We developed deep connections and trust with people and sought to have a more cooperative movement,” she said. “We did a lot of singing, and handing out balloons and some thought we weren’t serious enough … but it bonded people to the movement.”
Making women’s mark on history
“Making the Case for Women in History,” a moderated #NYSUTchat on Twitter, discussed how educators can include women’s voices in school curricula. The event was inspired by PBS’s “Where are the Women?” virtual summit.
Participants agreed that inclusion should occur in all subject areas and all grade levels. “We can’t keep perpetuating the same old curriculum … women are not sideline contributors, we are at the forefront,” said Lori Atkinson, Copenhagen Teachers Association.
“Gender bias is pervasive in classrooms and our culture,” said Marne Ryan Brady, BOCES United Professionals, noting that fewer than 11 percent of textbook references are devoted to women and K-12 textbooks and curricula often portray women as bystanders to history.
Showing the contributions of women is important so that children don’t grow up having lower expectations for women, said Aisha Cook, New Rochelle FUSE. “Representation matters.”
Clemencia Acevedo, UFT, agreed, noting that when students see themselves represented they “can feel there is a space for people who have my looks and share my culture.”
“Educators have an obligation to all children to show diverse images of women in decision-making positions,” said NYSUT Board member Janella Hinds, UFT.
Participants agreed that encouraging women to take leadership roles, and identifying and nurturing leaders along the way, is important. “We begin by intentionally mentoring women,” said NYSUT Board member Dora Leland, Horseheads TA, who also advocates seeking out and supporting women who might need encouragement from those who have more experience.
The archive of the #NYSUTChat conversation includes links to a variety of resources available to weave women’s history lessons into classrooms.
For information on other events and more resources, go to nysut.org/women.
DiBrango, who wrote a blog on the need to amplify women’s contributions throughout history, suggested efforts must go beyond a one-month celebration.
“Giving all children an opportunity to learn from the wisdom and experiences of trailblazers of all genders and races, from this country and from around the globe, has to be a concerted effort,” DiBrango said. “I know many make a special effort to do so during Women’s History Month, but we need to make it a year-round endeavor.”