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Celebrating International Women's Day: Reflections from Natalie Portman, Maya Angelou

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For the centenary of International Women's Day this week, Marianne Schnall samples assessments from a wide range of women on where we stand around the world.

Stories related to women and girls globally generally tend to get so little mainstream coverage in the media that it's too easy to remain blissfully unaware of their status. March 8, International Women’s Day, lets the world stop and consider women’s condition past and present—both to celebrate the economic, political and social strides women have certainly made globally, but also to remind us of the enormous inequities that remain to be addressed. Around the world, girls and women continue to lack economic opportunity and adequate health care and education. They are pushed into early marriage and suffer sexual violence and many forms of oppression and discrimination.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, which is celebrated in diverse ways. Here in the United States, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will host a series of special events including the 2011 International Women of Courage Awards with First Lady Michelle Obama at the Department of State. And globally, thousands of people will unite on bridges around the world in a Join Me on the Bridge campaign organized by the women’s rights organization Women for Women International. The group will issue a call for women globally to have security, economic opportunity and an equal voice at the decision-making table.

The global community is increasingly aware of how educating girls and women helps the whole of humanity, with women's empowerment linked to a host of other serious problems facing the world such as poverty, war and the environment. As Hillary Clinton said at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, “human rights are women's rights… and women's rights are human rights.”

If anyone needed a reminder of how women's rights are interlinked around the world, they need look no further than the brutal sexual assault on CBS news reporter Lara Logan by a gang of men in the midst of the celebrations in the streets of Egypt—and her rescue by a group of women and some members of the Egyptian army. Women who participated in the Egyptian protests had finally felt safe in the streets and that their voices mattered. They had been all too familiar with harassment: a 2008 poll found that 83 percent of Egyptian women and 93 percent of foreign women were harassed in Egypt. And women in the United States are equally familiar with the kind of blame-the-victim media comment suffered by Lara Logan following the attack. As author and activist Gloria Steinem told me, “Lara Logan's criminal assault and ordeal shows that violence against women crosses all lines of geography, privilege and culture—and so does women's determination to protect each other. Just as her attackers should be punished, the women who took the risk of defending Lara deserve gratitude for providing an example we all must follow.”

Women—and men—must come together and take a strong stand for our own rights and those of our global sisters. (To get informed and involved, you can visit this list at the women’s web site I run, Feminist.com, where we feature some of the amazing organizations working on behalf of women’s global causes).

As a freelance journalist I have had the honor of interviewing some of the world’s most renowned and influential women. To help celebrate this centenary of International Women’s Day, I went through my interviews and compiled a selection of quotes to remind us of our interdependence and why we all benefit when we stand up to empower women and girls.

Across the developing world, many countries and many parts of many countries have not come very far in treating women with dignity. And then in our own so called civilized countries, the amount of domestic violence that is uncovered all the time is shocking. So I think women are still getting a hard time, I'm afraid. —Jane Goodall, primatologist and founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and Roots & Shoots, a global nonprofit that empowers youths to make a positive difference for all living things

There are no better people than women to save the planet, because we understand the cycles of life. So if cycles of life were applied to all our environmental and natural resource degradation, we would change where we’re going: A world where girls are valued and where a woman’s voice really makes a difference. Pat Mitchell, first woman president and CEO of PBS, president and CEO of The Paley Center for Media and organizer of TEDWomen

I have a profound desire to see if it’s possible for us to evolve out of a violent mentality, and to actually know what the world would be like if we weren’t living in that. The idea that we are murdering and dropping bombs on people… the idea that there are people starving and living in dust, the idea that people have no voice and no life—and that this is the only life we get—gets me up and gets me going every day. Eve Ensler, author and playwright and the founder and artistic director of V-Day, the global movement to end violence against women and girls

I go to Africa, and I just got back from Peru… and no matter what the culture is, everybody's doing the same thing. Everybody's surviving off the planet, surviving off the land somehow. And they all just want to make a living, they all want to be happy, they want to be loved. I see it everywhere I go. And that's really powerful. So in that alone, we have become a global society and what we do has an impact. It's kind of exciting to see how we all are connected now, completely connected. —Cameron Diaz, actress and environmental activist

Some of us may have a powerful voice in Western countries, but women globally often have very little voice in comparison with men. At the same time, when women get together as a group, it's immensely powerful. And I get very frustrated when I hear women saying oh, feminism is passé. Because I think feminism means empowerment. Many men are feminists. We need feminism. It's not against men. It's about the empowerment of women. It's the respect of women. Annie Lennox, recording artist and founder of SING, a humanitarian organization that raises awareness for the AIDS/HIV pandemic in Africa

Today millions of young women who benefit from the struggles of their mothers and grandmothers and would not give up any of their rights don’t call themselves feminists because it’s not sexy. They believe that feminism is dated. They have not looked around [to notice] that today, in the 21st century, women still do two-thirds of the world labor and own less than one percent of the assets; girls are still sold into prostitution, premature marriage, and forced labor… In times of conflict, war, poverty, or religious fundamentalism, women and children are the first and most numerous victims. Women need all their courage today, as they needed it before. Isabel Allende, author, advocate for human rights, and founder of the Isabel Allende Foundation

If you have a person enslaved, the first thing you must do is to convince yourself that the person is subhuman. And won’t mind the enslavement. The second thing you must do is convince your allies that the person is subhuman so that you have some support. But the third and the unkindest cut of all is to convince that person that he, she, is not quite a first class citizen. When the complete job has been done, the initiator can go back years later and ask, “Why don’t you people like yourselves more?” You see? It’s been true for women, it’s been true for immigrants, it’s been true for Asians, it’s been true for Spanish-speaking people. So now we have to undo. We can learn to see each other and see ourselves in each other. Maya Angelou, poet, writer, activist, and teacher

I am a hopeful person. I don’t think that humankind was created with this ability to evolve upward spiritually in order for us to then destroy ourselves. So I have to believe that forces of light and consciousness are going to win out. But we’re going to have to work hard and be very brave, and expect a backlash. And I think this next step in human evolution is going to be led by women of conscience, supported by men of conscience. Jane Fonda, actress, founder of the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy and a cofounder of The Women's Media Center

[My wish] is that people pay attention, look to their neighbors. We’ve lost so much community. One of the things I’ve appreciated seeing most in [the villages I've visited is] just the sense that they take care of each other. And when you lose that on a personal level, you lose that on a global level as well. —Natalie Portman, actress, and FINCA International Ambassador of Hope, an organization that promotes micro-lending to empower women in poor countries

I made women's issues central to American foreign policy not because I was a feminist, but because we know that societies are more stable if women are politically and economically empowered. Women don't have trouble finding work, but they need to be valued and they need to be part of a legal system. In some ways women are like the canary in the coal mine. If women are treated badly it shows what else is happening out there, as was certainly the case in Afghanistan. I don't think people should think of women's issues as auxiliary issues; they are central. —Madeleine Albright, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and the first woman to hold the position of U.S. secretary of state

Women will transform the world. The world will not change without us doing it, and I see it everywhere I go. Nothing’s going to change until the women have absolute authority. Not powerI hate that word power. But the authority that they need. And they’re aiming for it, they’re working for it. —Betty Williams, Nobel Peace Prize laureate for her work to bring peace to Northern Ireland, founder of World Centers of Compassion for Children International and a cofounder of the Nobel Women's Initiative

Portions of the above appeared in Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice by Marianne Schnall. Excerpted with permission from Blue Mountain Arts.

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