The Sonoma County woman behind Women’s History Month

One daring question by a Santa Rosa woman in 1964 led to the creation of the March celebration.|

At her first job after high school, Molly Murphy MacGregor asked her supervisor a question that would dramatically change her life and lead to the creation of Women’s History Month.

It was 1964. MacGregor worked at Bank of America in Southern California. A Catholic educated in parochial school, she had grown up with just one ambition: to marry and have nine children like her mother. Then she learned that a man hired the same day as she was earning 40 percent more.

When she asked her supervisor why, he said the man was in a management training course.

“Well, put me in that course,” she said.

The supervisor led her to a large desk sitting just inside the bank’s front door. “Molly,” she recalled him saying, “do you think people want to walk in here and see a woman sitting at that desk? They’ll have no respect for the bank.”

MacGregor immediately thought of the nuns who ran schools she had attended. No one doubted their managerial expertise.

“I was young and innocent,” she said of the experience. “But I knew stupid when I heard it. His attitude violated everything I had ever learned as a Catholic and as an American. I had been brought up to believe in fairness and equality.”

MacGregor quit her job, went to college and became a high school history and English teacher, teaching at Canyon High in Saugus, about 40 miles south of Bakersfield. It was the early ’70s. Friday classes focused on contemporary society.

One Friday, a male student asked, “What’s the women’s movement?” MacGregor had no idea, but she quickly found out.

Her research turned up scores of famous women she had never heard about: women who improved education, mental health care, medical health care, who worked to end slavery and secure the vote.

“I was 25, married, a high school teacher,” she said. “I had majored in history and made all A’s, and yet I had never noticed these women who went before me, making the world a better place. I suddenly felt it was my mission to share women’s history.”

Following a three-year whirlwind of trauma and loss, including her mother’s death and the breakup of her marriage, MacGregor moved to Sonoma County.

Here, she taught a women’s history class at Santa Rosa Junior College, started taking women’s history classes at Sonoma State University and joined the Commission on the Status of Women’s Education Task Force.

Her SRJC classroom filled up with women about her age. They surveyed school libraries and discovered few books on women’s history, those few collecting dust.

“Women’s history transformed me,” MacGregor said. “It gave me a sense of confidence and made me feel connected to everyone. I believe it can transform others. If women know how strong, brave and bold other women have been, they can feel that way, too. And if men know how strong, brave and bold women have been, they will feel more respect for women.”

MacGregor convinced county school administrators to proclaim the week of March 8, 1978, Women’s History Week.

Then she and others who believed in her mission created curriculum guides and other classroom materials, organized a celebratory parade and held a training day for women in various organizations to share the history of women in their fields.

“We joked amongst ourselves: first the county, then the state, then the nation, then the world,” MacGregor said.

March 1978 saw Sonoma County’s first Women’s History Week.

The next year, at a 17-day Women’s History Institute at Sarah Lawrence College, MacGregor shared what was happening in Sonoma County. She inspired others there to copy the history week program, reproducing and sharing nationally the curriculum guide and other materials. Women around the country began petitioning their governors to declare the week of March 8 Women’s History Week.

Ms. magazine ran an article about the effort, with a sidebar about MacGregor’s work in Sonoma County, and MacGregor fielded calls by people from Maine to Montana, asking how to replicate what she was doing here.

One rainy afternoon in February 1980, she answered her phone to hear, “This is the White House calling for Molly MacGregor.”

The caller said President Jimmy Carter would issue a presidential proclamation declaring the week of March 8 National Women’s History Week.

MacGregor and four others - Mary Ruthsdotter, Maria Cuevas, Paula Hammett and Bette Morgan - formed the nonprofit National Women’s History Project in 1980 to broadcast women’s historical achievements.

In 1981, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and then-Rep. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., co-sponsored a congressional resolution proclaiming Women’s History Week. By 1986, 14 governors had proclaimed women’s history weeks in their states.

MacGregor and others petitioned Congress to designate the entire month of March as Women’s History Month, and in 1987, Congress did.

Today, the National Women’s History Project operates out of MacGregor’s Santa Rosa home, where she has remodeled the garage into a full-fledged office.

Funded by donations, teacher training conferences and the sale of women’s history merchandise, the self-supporting organization develops the Women’s History Month theme each year, chooses the honorees from among people nominated throughout the country, and produces the materials needed to celebrate the event.

“We make it as easy as possible to celebrate women’s history,” MacGregor said.

At 69, her energy and enthusiasm seem endless. She writes press releases and articles, speaks at conferences, conducts trainings and continues producing materials as she works with her part-time staff of four and her 12-member board of directors.

“The congressional resolution and presidential proclamation have given Women’s History Month tremendous credibility,” she said.

Under MacGregor’s leadership, the Project publishes an annual Women’s History Gazette and produces posters, banners and women’s history month kits for organizations as diverse as book clubs, churches, women’s auxiliaries, volunteer groups, government agencies, schools, community colleges and universities.

“When we started, we had no idea how many communities would see Women’s History Month as an opportunity to honor and recognize women in their own spheres,” she said.

“In the beginning, about 80 percent of those requesting our materials were teachers. Today, we hear from women’s organizations, federal agencies, educators at all levels, as well as parents and relatives of children.

“The concept of simple justice never goes out of style. And every generation draws strength from knowing how others have paved our way.”

Receiving grateful emails and letters energizes her, MacGregor said. “We hear from elderly people and from youngsters thrilled to discover women’s history. This is not some dusty academic fact. … Women’s history is about us and who we are.”

Looking back over the past 35 years, she hails the changed attitudes toward and roles for women.

“In 1964, we couldn’t even wear slacks to school. Now there are three women on the Supreme Court. There are women bishops in the Episcopalian Church. Look at the role of women and men as parents, how mutual it is. How wonderful,” she said. “But there is much to do. We still struggle with equal pay. There’s the issues of domestic violence, women in poverty, sexual assaults.”

MacGregor believes that discovering women’s history will inspire healing of these social wounds. And she never tires of telling about the hundreds of women who have contributed to the Project’s work. From librarians to artists, historians, lawyers and grandmothers, their stories tumble out in rapid-fire succession.

MacGregor insists that her decades of breathing fresh life into women’s history have been a team endeavor.

“Anyone can come up with an idea,” she said. “But unless you have the people to help you manifest it, it remains just an idea.”

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