by Diane Vacca

It’s been a particularly trying day. After hours of wheedling and tweaking, my fancy electronic devices still refused to communicate civilly with each other. Tech support basically threw up its hands and advised me to reinstall the computer’s operating system, a last-ditch resort I’m not ready to adopt. Instead, I’ve turned the clock back more than 30 years. I’m baking cookies, something I haven’t done since the kids were living at home and cholesterol wasn’t a dirty word.

The delightful fragrance of cinnamon wafts from the oven, and the biscotti are even more powerful than madeleines: without a single bite, I’m transported back to the 70s. At the same time, aware that I’m planning to write about International Women’s Day, but not yet knowing what angle to pursue, I defer any serious thinking and turn my mind over to the TV.

Rachel Maddow is holding forth in the ether, and she abruptly pulls me out of my 70s reverie, because nothing about her would have been possible 30 years ago. Maddow, a woman, hosts her own show— not a sitcom or a soap opera— but political commentary. Moreover, Maddow is openly gay, a fact that neither enhances nor detracts from her performance. It’s merely irrelevant. Her guests are influential men, all of whom are flattered by and grateful for her attention. Tonight she interviews a grandmotherly African-American woman, Dr. Ada Fisher, Republican National Committee member, who called for the resignation of the man just elected nominal head of the Republican party. Race and gender are rapidly receding into the background of our national consciousness.

Almost. It’s hard to say which prejudice is more deeply ingrained. The 2008 election brought both to the fore. How heart-breaking it was for so many of us to have to choose between a woman and an African-American! We were like children: Why can’t we have both?

And yet, some nether part of me is still stubbornly stuck in an earlier time. I remember my mother boasting that my father would not “allow” her to work. Even today, when my husband asks me to accompany him to a social event related to his business that conflicts with an event my editor has asked me to cover, I have difficulty refusing him. His old-world charm, coupled with his status as the principal bread-winner, complicates my ability to assert myself. Old habits die hard. When I see “Clinton” in a headline, I have to remind myself that the person making news is Hillary, not Bill. Though Clinton is our third secretary of state who is also a woman, I still feel a rush when I see a woman with so much power.

American women, who have yet to pluck the ultimate prize in the political arena, in this respect lag behind much of the rest of the world. Asia (Sri Lanka and India) had the first two women prime ministers; Israel, the third. Since 1960, every continent has had women at the head of government. In 1980, Iceland was first among the world’s nations to directly elect a woman head of state, followed by countries in Asia, South America, Africa and others in Europe. Even Switzerland, which didn’t grant voting rights to all its women until 1990, nine years later elected a woman to serve as president of the Confederation.

Leaving aside the women who are heads of state and government as the notable exceptions that they are, we need to consider the millions of women across the world with far fewer rights to call their own.

In 1995, when Secretary Clinton addressed the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, women comprised more than half the word’s population, 70% of the world’s poor, and two-thirds of those not taught to read and write. Those numbers have changed little in the intervening years.

There are still many who, as Clinton noted nearly 14 years ago, “are denied food, or drowned, or suffocated, or their spines broken, simply because they are born girls”; who “are sold into the slavery of prostitution”; who “are doused with gasoline, set on fire, and burned to death because their marriage dowries are deemed too small”; who “are raped in their own communities and … subjected to rape as a tactic or prize of war”; who “are brutalized by the painful and degrading practice of genital mutilation” as young girls; who “are denied the right to plan their own families, forced to have abortions or … sterilized against their will.”

These are “violation[s] of human rights,” Clinton famously declared, because “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.”  Until the Taliban, the hillbillies, the Janjaweed and all the others of their ilk either recognize the truth of those words or succumb to the power of those who do, International Women’s Day will be an occasion more for sober reflection than celebration.

Trained as a
medievalist, Diane Vacca
taught medieval literature, Spanish and Italian at
several universities before becoming a journalist with specialties in
politics, the arts and New York City. Her work can also be found at
Talking Points,, and New York City weekly Chelsea
Now, where she covers everything from education and public housing to
designation and the arts. She lives in midtown with her husband,
Salvatore Vacca; they have two children
and three grandchildren.

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