Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day 2024

March 17, 2024

At left, Andrea Kane receiving the 2018 Sarah S. Brown Award.

International Women’s Day is celebrated around the world and in many countries as an opportunity to highlight the achievements made by women as well as the areas where there is still much work to do. Women’s labor movements in various countries were the first to call attention to support women’s rights in political, economic and social areas. In 1977, the United Nations officially designated this special day because since its founding the UN has included the equal rights of men and women at its center. At the inaugural session in 1945, Frieda Dalen of Norway became the first woman delegate to address it and the American delegate Eleanor Roosevelt read an “open letter to the women of the world” urging for their increased involvement in national and international affairs. She was an instrumental force behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN in 1948. It was the first global recognition that there are basic inalienable rights and fundamental freedoms that apply to every human being.

Since then, there have been historic steps to protect women’s rights, recognizing that violence against women is a human rights violation as are extreme poverty and war. This is obvious to us today as we observe the terrible events happening on several continents.

Although these are global issues, we also need to look at what is happening in the United States.

During Women’s History Month, we have an opportunity to focus on the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. We might ask why we even need a month on this subject, and even more so, why we need to have a special day to highlight this issue. There is a reason. In fact, there are many reasons. 

In the 1920s, my grandmother Fannie regularly stood in a park and called out for women’s reproductive rights. In 1996, her great-granddaughter, my daughter Andrea Kane, became part of the newly formed National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (now called Power to Decide). Through their efforts, teen pregnancies which President Clinton called “our most serious social problem” reached a historic low. Andrea was Vice President for Policy and Strategic Partnerships at Power to Decide and received the 2018 Sarah S. Brown Award. The award recognized Andrea’s distinguished career, and her ongoing work on behalf of women, youth, and working families.

When I entered college, women were still considered the property of men and we could not get a bank account in our own name. We were only recognized when we became Mrs. attached to our husband’s name or we needed our father’s permission.

We could not make choices over our own bodies. Contraception was not easily accessible without a doctor’s prescription. One of my girlfriends had to seek a back-alley abortion performed by a sleazy person pretending to be a doctor. She ended up in the hospital treating a botched abortion and nearly died.

In the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, the Supreme Court found a “right’ to abortion in the U.S. Constitution, effectively legalizing abortion in all 50 states. It seemed that the decision was made, and women could count on it. However, since 2017, starting with a case in Mississippi, the fight was on. In 2022, the Supreme Court released its opinion in the Dobbs case. The official opinion was authored by Justice Alito and overturned Roe v Wade. This is where we are now. This could be overturned by a national law to allow abortions, but Congress will not address it.

Although we have assumed we have always had legal rights and especially the right to vote. It wasn’t the case, and the battle to secure the vote for women took time, courage, commitment, and sacrifice. We hardly think about it when we fill out our ballots.

From left to right, my grandmother Fannie and grandfather Max Finkelstein, standing with them is Ethel (my mother), Alexander, and the twins Sylvia and Evelyn.

In 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott organized the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention of over 300 people, mostly women. They declared that men and women should be created equal and have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as the Declaration of Independence mentions only men. These women and those who joined them also fought to end slavery. After the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 gave Black men the right to vote, women were not included. When Susan B. Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association the next year, a group of women sent a letter to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives urging that women be included in the amendment and that they be able to speak in front of Congress to argue their points. Congress refused. Today’s Congress is again refusing to recognize women’s rights as the issue of abortion and IVF is affecting women’s lives. 

In 1908, during a time of great unrest and debates over women’s oppression and inequality, 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights. Over the next year, women from various countries began to hold conferences and call attention to women’s rights to work, vote, be trained, hold public office and end discrimination. In many countries, International Women’s Day was formed as an official holiday, but not yet in the U.S.

The right for women to vote was introduced to Congress in 1878. Marches, hunger strikes, and even forced feedings of women in jail continued. On the state level, changes were made beginning in Wyoming in 1869, followed by Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Washington, California, Oregon, Arizona, Montana, North Dakota, New York, Rhode Island, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Michigan. It took 42 years, for the 19th amendment, making it illegal to deny the right to vote to any citizen based on their sex, to pass in 1920.  

People are still being denied the right to vote through voter suppression usually targeting minority groups. Barriers such as literacy tests, poll taxes, and English-language requirements were put in place. Only in 1964 with the 24th amendment, poll taxes were ruled unconstitutional.

With both abortion rights and voting rights, we are experiencing attempts to move us back to the Middle Ages. Women have worked so hard to gain equality, and now because of the last gasp of the patriarchy, women are being treated as property of men again. We cannot let this happen.

Where women in Puritan New England were forced to wear a Scarlet A on their chest for adultery, today women having to travel to seek an abortion in some states are arrested or publicly vilified. They may as well be wearing an A for ”abortion seeker.” What rights will be taken away next?

International Women’s Month, and especially National Women’s Day (March 8) calls attention to the achievements of women in all fields, strengthening women’s rights in economic life, in our personal lives with whom we can love and marry, and in protecting our own bodies. It is not a matter of only celebrating the achievements that have been gained, but recognizing that now we have to fight to reinstate what is being taken away and to go further in protecting and securing women’s rights.