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Bay Reflections

Reflections on Women’s History Month

Among our advances, we’d like half a day off

by M.L. Faunce

As Women’s History Month began, Hillary Clinton was making history, with March 4 victories in big Texas and Ohio and little Rhode Island, keeping alive the possibility that America will elect its first woman president.

If you wanted to celebrate women’s history, that was as good a day as you’ll have this month. International Women’s Day on March 8 — proclaimed by the United Nations in 1975 to commemorate the economic, political and social achievements of women — is not celebrated in the United States. What excuse can we offer for not joining in this day of solidarity except to say that here, we do things bigger, dedicating the entire month of March for women’s history.

March 8 was celebrated as a national holiday in many countries across the globe. My colleague Marta tells me that in China, where she taught English, Women’s Day is celebrated with speeches, activities and gifts of flowers. Women there get a half-day off from work.

“It was a shock to my students,” Marta said, “that the United States does not celebrate Women’s Day, especially as they look to the U.S. as a country where women have freedoms and opportunities unavailable to all in that country.”

That got me thinking about all women have to celebrate this year.

Test your knowledge of women’s history at the National Women’s History Project:

To get you started, here are the first four of 31 questions:

1. Who founded Bethune-Cookman College, established the National Council of Negro Women and served as an advisor on minority affairs to President Franklin D. Roosevelt?

2. What woman was the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature?

3. What black woman refused to give up her seat to a white man, in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, thus sparking the civil rights movement of the following decade?

4. Who was the first woman to run for president of the United States (1872)?

At home and across the globe, women have achieved wonderful political victories.

Women govern our states and represent us in Congress. In other countries, they’ve climbed higher. In Argentina, the Evita-evoking Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner won election as president. In Germany, Angela Merkel is chancellor. The qualities that brought her to power — qualities often admired in men — are, I suspect, not complimented by the nickname the Iron Frau.

Some of these women leaders risk more than mere name-calling. Harvard-educated, pro-democracy Benazir Bhutto, the fearless female Pakistani leader, gave up her life for her aspirations to lead her country to representative government. Her son vows to continue Bhutto’s historic struggle, saying, “My mother always said democracy is the best revenge.”

Maybe that’s the feminine mystique shared by Chancellor Merkel, President Fernandez de Kirchner and our own Hillary Clinton.

Politics is not the only realm where women made history last year.

In India, where woman are banned from most places of worship and the caste system keeps women among minorities, the inimitable Sharifa Khanam is working to build a woman’s mosque.

Back at home, arts is the theme of this year’s National Women’s History Month. Twelve women artists — among them a painter, sculptor, weaver, potter, embroiderer, cartoonist — were honored to show the diversity of the art women make.

Within reach of the Chesapeake, we celebrate our own maestra, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop. Now in her second season, she shatters the glass ceiling of conducting. Alsop excites and enriches us with classical programs both contemporary and legendary, even as she mentors young women conductors with fellowships, encouragement and example.

After my 2007 Bay Weekly Women’s History reflection welcoming to the world my great-niece Lily, my brother wrote to me: “Someday a proud history to be appreciated every day … may make little need for Women’s History Month.”

Maybe. For all our strides, women still live in a world betwixt and between, as my mother might have said. Feminist Gloria Steinham is blunter: “Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life,” she says, four decades into the latest women’s movement.

Here in the U.S., women may not enjoy a half-day off on International Women’s Day, but we have a whole month to make history.

Award-winning contributor Mary Louise Faunce is the daughter, sister, aunt and great aunt of women who make everyday history.

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