Preparing to Take Action During Women’s History Month

Amber Vlasnik, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs, Thurgood Marshall College, University of California, San Diego

February 25, 2019

Women’s History Month (WHM) is almost here! This two-part post can be read any way you like. Interested in professional identity shifts and what celebrating WHM in March can do for a campus? Start from the beginning. Want to get to the action and explore 17 ways to celebrate WHM? Skip to Part Two. No matter how you decide to read, Happy Women’s History Month to you.

 Part One: What’s To Love about Planning Women’s History Month?

Women’s History Month (WHM) is the time of year that used to fill me with varying levels of event planning anxiety as well as genuine excitement about creating and implementing an inclusive, thought-provoking program slate. For 12 years, I worked in campus-based women’s centers and planned dozens of programs—large and small—to commemorate women’s history and accomplishments, bring attention to contemporary women’s/gender issues, and to re/imagine a feminist future. It was exciting, challenging, often invigorating work done in collaboration with a changing cast of colleagues and students. And for those 12 years, I was fortunate to attend all the programs I worked so long and hard to plan. March was busy, fun, intellectually rigorous, and always felt very special.

A few years ago, I left the women’s center position I loved, moved cross country to finish my dissertation, and engaged in my first place-bound job search. While I am happy in my new position and am able to daily engage my commitments related to advancing institutional equity, diversity, and inclusion, I don’t plan WHM programs or events anymore.

The first year was strange. In the months leading up to March, there was a part of me that was really, really relieved to not be responsible for WHM logistics, planning, and advertising. I didn’t miss the hundreds of emails required to book space, speakers, and event necessities like microphones, chairs, or catering. I didn’t miss obsessively proofreading campus-wide email announcements or posters because a single error could invite harsh critique from a detractor or confuse an interested program attendee. And as March arrived in Ohio, I did not miss watching winter weather patterns to see if a speaker’s flight was going to be delayed or cancelled.

As the month neared, I was surprised that my feelings started to shift. I realized that there were aspects I did miss from being involved in the planning process. I missed working with faculty to generate ideas for speakers who would also enhance their classrooms. I missed deepening relationships with colleagues and students through the planning process. And I missed the ongoing discussions with colleagues about how to make the most inclusive, intersectional, and timely slate of programs possible.

As the first WHM approached in my new, non-women’s center role, I had all these feelings churning. By early February, I was checking campus websites looking for the WHM calendar to be released. Then, one day, I opened my email and was not disappointed. The topics were great! The keynote was someone whose scholarship I loved! I opened my calendar, ready to add events to my schedule. I was going to attend them all!

Imagine my surprise when I realized that I was completely unavailable during several of the events (mandatory training, a 10-person meeting I was leading, and a doctor’s appointment that I later tried to reschedule but could not). The keynote was during a meeting where my attendance was required. I went through the WHM calendar and by the end, there was not a single event I could attend.

Not. Even. One.

I still don’t have words to faithfully or fully describe how I felt during that first March of WHM. I did my best to encourage others (including colleagues in my office) to attend events. Students came back from them excited. One by one, all the events occurred. Women’s History Month was over and I did not attend a single event.

This experience did allow me to put words to what I loved—and missed—about WHM: the excitement of students when they meet a speaker who inspires them; the ideas shared among people who might not otherwise interact; and the conversations that continue in the women’s center, outside staff members’ offices, and in the classrooms of faculty who brought their classes to the programs and events. Personally, I greatly missed attending the programs I worked to plan and being able to examine new ideas and theories.

In addition to the story of my shifting professional relationship with WHM and the discovery of what’s to love about planning it, the first part of this post is an expression of deep appreciation to all who plan WHM events for their institutions. The labor—paid and unpaid—of these individuals should be named and their programs should be fully supported for the benefits they bring to our campuses. WHM can open critical conversations about the experiences of diverse individuals and communities, explore intersectionality, analyze discrimination and oppressions, and advance new voices, ideas, and strategies for social change.

Part Two: Celebrating WHM From Wherever You Are

I’m well aware that there are individuals who cannot or do not attend WHM events in March. Maybe no one plans them on your campus. Perhaps the events happen, but do not reflect who you are or issues about which you care deeply. Perhaps you have to work, study, or care for others such that you cannot attend events.

What follows is a list of ideas of how to celebrate/commemorate/diversify/make WHM more intersectional from wherever you are, whether your institution offers formal programming during the month or not. This list is not exhaustive, but is meant to be a conversation starter of how to mark the month in a way that feels authentic and exciting to you.

 Individual Actions

  1. Do online research. Learn about your current institution (or your alma mater or an institution for which you’d love to work). What offices or organizations exist that explore women’s/gender issues? What women’s/gender studies courses are offered? How might you get involved?
  2. Read or re-read. Re-read a favorite text, finally dive into that classic that’s been collecting dust, or read from an author or perspective outside your comfort zone. The goal is to give yourself permission to put aside work (if possible) to read something meaningful or exciting to you.
  3. Watch. Indulge in a TV series, movie, documentary, or spoken word poetry created/written/directed by or starring women. You can support the creative endeavors of women, especially if you’re legally accessing their work through a paid subscription.
  4. Donate. Whether it’s a book, your gently used professional clothes, your time, or your money, WHM can be a great to think about what you value and then invest in it.
  5. Credit those around you. Be intentional about crediting women and minoritized colleagues for their ideas, hard work, creativity, and commitment. How can you support their growth, development, and reputation through appropriately, publicly, and regularly crediting them for all they do?
  6. Post regularly on social media. Engage in online WHM activism. Try a mix of sharing/retweeting the posts of others, honoring the women around you, or sharing your own experience. You could also share what you learned from or loved about engaging with Actions #1-5 above (be sure to tag #wisakc).

 Group Actions

  1. Connect with students. Where/how does gender show up on campus? There are likely many affirming as well as alarming answers to this simple question. What women’s/gender issues do the students in your office experience on campus? Can you amplify what is affirming/positive? Can you address concerns from the vantage of your current role?
  2. Have a working lunch. If you’re like me, you have colleagues who you want to get to know but you’ve been too busy. It’s WHM! Gather them for a lunch date and talk about a women/gender-themed topic. Or, just get them together because they’re interesting people and will surely find things to talk about. Either way, this is the month to make it happen!
  3. Host a group of friends. Gather your current friends to discuss women’s issues, read a book together, or celebrate the successes you’ve experienced in the past year (life events, personal or professional victories, stories of survival). What’s important is setting a purpose, deciding where to meet, and showing up for each other.
  4. Plan an outing. Maybe it’s a play date with a purpose (taking the kids somewhere to celebrate WHM, for example). Maybe it’s your favorite museum to see how they commemorate WHM or seeing a movie directed by a woman. Theme it around something WHM-related if you can and then discuss it with your fellow explorer/s or share with your network later (see #6).
  5. Join a service project. WHM is a great time to give back to your community. Maybe your play date with a purpose (see #10) is to sort donations at a social service agency. You know your community and its needs, but if you aren’t certain, you could ask your colleagues or friends.

 Actions Within/Across/Against the Institution

  1. Ensure WHM publicity. If your campus hosts WHM programs, support them in your area. If you have the platform, share the print and digital advertising to drive attendance and engagement at formal WHM events.
  2. Send others in your place. If you’re the supervisor or a well-connected professional and can’t attend the WHM programs yourself, send a junior member of your staff (or all of them) to attend in your place. Challenge yourself to see who would really appreciate/benefit from attending. Can you staff the front desk for an hour so the administrative specialist can attend? Will your graduate assistant be able to count attending as part of their work hours? Supporting others to attend meaningful programs builds morale, your unit, and your professional reputation. Make it happen for others.
  3. Weave WHM themes into other history/heritage months. Ideally, our institutions should celebrate women’s achievements and engage with women’s/gender issues year-round. How intersectional is your institution’s programming?
  4. Offer space or resources to others. Support for others isn’t always just about showing up. Sometimes it’s sharing or allocating the resources you control (e.g., dollars, access to a meeting room or a vice president). Open pathways for others.
  5. Time for policy review. Dedicate intentional time to review the policies and practices in your area/unit. Is there a disparate impact on women? Different outcomes based on gender? What about gender nonconforming or nonbinary students or staff? Who might have a different perspective to offer your policy scan? Be sure to invite—and credit them for—their participation.
  6. Advocate for more resources for the women’s center, or to start one. Does your campus-based women’s center have all it needs for a successful WHM? To pursue its mission all year long? Work with its leaders to advocate for the resources and support needed. Your institution doesn’t have one and you’re interested in organizing for one? There are resources to help you with that! See the NWSA Women’s Centers Committee to get started.

It’s almost March, and I’ve got my institution’s Women’s History Month programs marked in my calendar. This year is different, though, because if my schedule changes, I know I have other options to take action during the month that shaped so many years of my working life. And the best part is, I can work on these options year-round.


Amber Vlasnik is Assistant Dean of Student Affairs for Thurgood Marshall College at the University of California, San Diego. Formerly, Amber led the women’s centers at Louisiana State University and Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. She currently co-chairs the UC San Diego Chancellor’s Committee on the Status of Women and is attending as many Women’s History Month events as her schedule allows.

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