Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Celebrating Great Women on International Women's Day

It is International Women's Day (IWD) and a part of me wishes I was in London in the mass march led by Annie Lennox across Millennium Bridge to celebrate, or in Washington, marching on Capitol Hill demanding a better world for millions of marginalized women and girls around the world. IWD is a global celebration of the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future and this is it's centenary year. At the time of this writing 25 countries around the world are marking the day, and there is more IWD activity globally now than ever before, probably in part because of the galvanizing power of the internet. The Socialist Suffragettes of Germany, 1911 would be happy to see all the renewed observances of their day around the world one hundred years on. They would be thrilled by the way women of this generation are using the web to be heard, to connect, to remember and to forge ahead with our continuing struggle for equality.

To mark the day I am imagining a gathering of great women who inspire me, a round table of icons and ordinary women to whom I am most grateful, whose works and words have made the world a better place for women and girls everywhere. Some are ghosts, some are still with us. I'll list them here as they come into my sight throughout the day.

Mary Naomi Mason-Ingraham is here. She is the humble woman with no formal education who lobbied the Bahamas government from 1950 to 1960, gathering thousands of signatures, writing letters and gathering grassroot support for the cause until government at last granted women the right to vote. Mary Ingraham is owed a deep debt of gratitude by all women for what she did for women's rights in this country. Is there a woman of our generation who would collect signatures for ten relentless years in order to change a law to better women's lives? I hope so.

Sitting next to her is Nobel Peace Laureate Professor Wangari Mathai, Founder of The Green Belt Movement that has to date planted 40 million trees across Kenya. I can hear Professor Mathai speaking: ""Women have become aware that planting trees or fighting to save forests from being chopped down is part of a larger mission to create a society that respects democracy, decency, adherence to the rule of law, human rights and the rights of women." Her work shines a light on the connection between forests and peace, equality and the health and wellness of humanity. She gives me the courage to write more about tree planting as a way to heal a crime and violence ridden neighbourhood, one of my secret obsessions.

She is speaking with the fabulous painter Frida Khalo, the painter of the early 20th century said to have been a grand diva who was a "tequila slamming, dirty joke-telling, smoker, bi-sexual who hobbled about her bohemian barrio in lavish indigenous dress and threw festive dinner parties for some of the greatest minds of her generation." Have to love that. But I honor her especially for the way she painted the painful truth about her life in all its unsettling glory, for showing up at that last exhibition born aloft in a hospital bed, how she never painted to "get over" anything, how her injury bled those paintings... Physical and emotional pain and turmoil were the subjects of her work, unashamedly, and still, she was an international sensation in her own lifetime. (So much for that theory of the greater value of looking on the bright side.) And of course, paradoxically she can be heard to say: "Feet, what do I need them for, when I have wings to fly?"

Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchu is here. She was given the prize in 1992 in recognition of her work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation and work based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples in her native Guatamala. Her voice rings clear: "We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle, or zoos. We are people and we want to be respected, not to be victims of intolerance and racism."

Next to her is author JK Rowling, Harry Potter creator, who in 2005 co-founded the Children's High Level Group (CHLG), inspired by a press report she read about children in caged beds in institutions in the Czech Republic. This charity aims to make life better for young people in care, in Eastern Europe and around the world. And she is an inspiration to me for the way she imagined and then wrote herself out of poverty into the billionaire bracket, telling us, "Rock bottom became a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life."

And here is Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prizewinning author of The Colour Purple, I raise my glass to her, the writer who changed what it meant to be a woman writer with the essay, "In Search of our Mothers Gardens":How simple a thing it seems to me that to know ourselves as we are, we must know our mothers names." So any of us remain writing because of and in response to that transformational essay.

And my paternal Grandmother is here too, Winnifred Louise Harris Sweeting, esteemed teacher, friend to so many, dear to me. I love and honor her today for so many reasons, for her great humor, her incredible bravery, and the way she never saw me as a victim the way others in the family did, but as a brave little girl and a capable young woman. I remember her great advice, especially what she said to me when I was a tragedy-ridden adolescent convinced no one would ever love me: "Don't worry so much about getting a man. Get some books instead. Then get some friends."

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