SENIOR POWER: Inspiring Change

By Helen Rippier Wheeler,
Friday March 07, 2014 - 01:17:00 PM

March is National Women’s History Month. March 8 is International Women's Day. 

In a society, the treatment of girls and women is a reflection of their position in that society. In our society, women are not guaranteed full rights, either to equal pay or to control over their own bodies. At the same time that violence against women is condoned, reproductive rights are under heightened attack. More anti-choice laws have been passed in the last few years than in the entire previous decade. 

The theme for this International Women’s Day is Inspiring Change. Acknowledge such abuses as sex-selection abortions in China and India, Third World women’s inability to vote and to obtain education, continuing repression of women and girls in western Afghanistan, and under-reported news of rampant domestic violence in Russia, sex slavery in India, self- immolation in Central Asia, gender-based violence and HIV, and compensation marriages and female genital mutilation (FGM) in several parts of the world. 

International Women’s Day is not an official American holiday. The United States was not a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW,) adopted in 1979 by the U N General Assembly and often described as an international bill of rights for women. More than 90% of United Nations member nations are -- I should say were -- parties to CEDAW. As of January first 2008, responsibility for servicing the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was tucked away (buried?) in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. 

Women's rights are under attack on many different fronts. CEDAW had been signed by President Carter, but the Senate dragged its feet. Apparently, these guys (“informal persons of either sex”) actually believe that CEDAW would impose policies on the U.S. that would legalize prostitution, force abortions, and harm families. President Obama supports CEDAW but has not thrown the weight of his presidency behind it. (It’s called lip service.) There will be actions in cities across the United States. Many, including San Francisco, have adopted resolutions calling on the Senate to ratify CEDAW. 

Speak-Out in San Francisco, 2 P.M. on March 8, at 24th and Mission Streets. For information: or 415-375-9502. 

International Women’s Day origins in the United States may date back to 1857, when 40,000 American women textile factory workers protested sweat-shop conditions, and in March 1908, women garment workers took to the streets of Manhattan's lower East Side, demanding the right to vote and an end to sweatshops and child labor. On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire led to 146 deaths, mostly young Jewish and Italian women. The two men who owned and operated the unsafe Manhattan building were acquitted. 

A group of American women struggling for women's rights had attended a conference of the Socialist International in 1910 in Copenhagen and requested passage of a resolution supporting American working women. The Party responded by creating a Women's Day to demonstrate in favor of woman suffrage. German socialist Clara Zetkin put forth a resolution to internationalize Women's Day, celebrated in March 1911 in Germany and Austria. March 8, 

1917 signified one of the most important events in the overthrow of Tsarist Russia: thousands of women organized and demonstrated. 

The Fourth World Conference on Women, 1995 in Beijing, mobilized the global women's movement into strategic alliances that resulted in participating nations’ commitment to the advancement of women. Its Platform for Action reaffirmed the fundamental principle adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights that the human rights of women and girls are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights throughout their life cycle. Hillary Rodham Clinton pointed out in her remarks in Beijing, “It is a violation of human rights when young girls are brutalized by the painful and degrading practice of genital mutilation… .” 

A Fifth World Conference on Women is proposed for 2015. In Qatar, of all places. Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D. (San Francisco, USA,) is mobilizing support for a 5th WCW that “address(es) new and emerging issues affecting women and girls since the Beijing Conference in 1995, to build upon and not re-open previous UN documents.” The position is that a 5WCW could act as “as a rallying point that would raise consciousness and network women worldwide… .” 

It was Bella Abzug who, shortly before her death in 1998, declared “They used to give us a day--it was called International Women's Day. In 1975 they gave us a year, the Year of the Woman. Then from 1975 to 1985 they gave us a decade, the Decade of the Woman. I said at the time, who knows, if we behave they may let us into the whole thing. Well, we didn't behave and here we are.” 


March is Women’s History Month. Take note, libraries, community centers, senior centers and senior housing projects. The Berkeley City Council’s March 11 agenda includes a recommendation that March be proclaimed Pedestrian Safety Month. And the North and South Berkeley Senior Centers have declared March as National Nutrition Month… 

President Jimmy Carter designated March 2-8, 1980 as National Women's History Week. State departments of education began to encourage celebrations of Women's History Month as a way to promote equality among the sexes in the classroom. Alaska, Maryland, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania developed and distributed curriculum materials in their public schools, which prompted such educational events as essay contests. Within a few years, thousands of schools and communities began to celebrate of Women's History Month. They planned stimulating programs about women's roles in history and society, with support and encouragement from governors, city councils, school boards, and the U.S. Congress. 

The National Women’s History Project’s Women of Character, Courage & Commitment list of Honorees from the present and the past includes Agatha Tiegel Hanson (1873-1959,) educator, author and advocate for the deaf community, and Arden Eversmeyer (1931- present,) founder of the Old Lesbian Oral Herstory Project. 

Hanson was a teacher, poet and advocate. Unable to hear and blind in one eye from a childhood illness, she never allowed her disabilities to hold her back. She came of age at a time when deaf women especially had few educational options. She was admitted to Gallaudet University, still the only college in America dedicated to the education of deaf and hard of hearing students. Graduating first in her class, her valedictorian speech argued for the recognition of the intellect of women, a cause she advocated throughout her life. 

Eversmeyer founded the Old Lesbian Oral Herstory Project (1999), to ensure that the stories of lesbians born in the first part of the 20th century, who were labeled “mentally ill”, fired from their jobs, rejected by their families, and raped and murdered with impunity, are recorded in history. Project volunteers have documented over 320 diverse life stories recording the sacrifices and obstacles faced by lesbians of that era. The collection is now archived, and continues to grow, as part of the prestigious Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College. 

In March 2011, the Barack Obama administration released a report, Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being, showing women's status in the U.S. in 2011 and how it had changed over time. This report was the first comprehensive federal report on women since a report produced by the Commission on the Status of Women in 1963.