This one’s for all you ladies out there (International Women’s Day)

International Women's Day logo

Between 2005 and 2007, International Women’s Day was part of my job description. My working year revolved around this day. Sometimes the projects were worthy, sometimes they were…less so.

It’s not something I get paid to care about anymore. And I doubt anyone I run into today will ask me what I’m doing for IWD2012. But yeah, I do still care, just a little wee bit.

To mark the occasion, and because this time I get to choose the worthy, here are 3 women who have been taking up space in my head recently for all the right reasons:

Nellie Bly (Elizabeth Jane Cochran)

“How can a doctor judge a woman’s sanity by merely bidding her good morning and refusing to hear her pleas for release? Even the sick ones know it is useless to say anything, for the answer will be that it is their imagination.”

Her Around the World in Seventy-Two Days is my favorite example of a woman breaking through the glass ceiling. Because that was a job that in any other circumstance would’ve gone to a man. But Nellie did it, and she smashed it and has the ticker-tape parade to prove it.

The book itself reads a little hard going by 2012 standards. Her journey doesn’t sound so hard, she manages her trip without speaking a speaking a word of any language other than English and she is accompanied by a series of male chaperones to keep her out of harm’s way. But historical context is everything, and there are some gems; her description of seasickness (“gave full vent to my emotions”) and her visit with Jules Verne in particular. And hey, her description of British trains? It seems not much has changed in a century.

Bly’s reporting on social justice issues is more affecting. Ten Days in a Mad House is a simultaneously deadpan and scathing description of abuse and horror. This is a story of women left to rot on the flimsiest of excuses, leaving Bly unsure of how her story would be received (or believed). But her measured reporting got a sensational reaction.

Annie Oakley

Annie Oakley was one more American icon I’d heard of but nothing more until I watched her hour on PBS’s American Experience last month.

Everyone in American knows about Annie Oakley. Every student in American elementary schools, I expect. Her story is a good one, and it has plenty of shooting in it, so what’s not to like?

A woman who succeeded in her career by being so, so much better than her male counterparts. Her story is fascinating not just from a gender perspective but also as an example of someone who understood the potential and power of celebrity.

“On the one hand, she is the trailblazer who is shattering stereotypes about appropriate feminine behavior, and yet on the other hand, she is a very proper Victorian lady… She was such a revolutionary figure in terms of being a media superstar, if you will. She could not only out-shoot men — she was out-earning most men of her time. And there are only so many gender roles that one person can break.” – Mary Zeiss Stange, Professor of Women’s Studies. 

Aung San Suu KyiAung San Suu Kyi

Which brings us to today, and the changes that are happening in Burma, finally, after decades of mis-steps and averted glances by the British and American governments and the world community.

I have Burmese refugees amongst my ESL students, and I wrote about this last year. The suffering and oppression of the Burmese people is something that makes my chest hurt and never fails to put my own dinky problems in perspective.

Suu Kyi’s life, like those of Annie Oakley and Nellie Bly, is too vast, too amazing for me to put down into a paragraph. She is someone that I’m simply in awe of and that I’m thankful for, and a reason why we can’t ignore what’s happening outside of our own backyard.

“In societies where men are truly confident of their own worth, women are not merely tolerated but valued.”  ―Aung San Suu Kyi

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