International Women's Day: Reflections from Natalie Portman, Maya Angelou and Other Renowned 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 why we all benefit when we stand up to empower women and girls.
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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. 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 that educating girls and women helps the whole of humanity, with women's empowerment linked to the alleviation of a host of 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 commentary 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 website I run,, 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 (many of which appear in my new book, "Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice") to remind us of our interdependence and why we all benefit when we stand up to empower women and girls.

Generally, I suppose if you just added up the number of abused women, it would probably far outweigh the privileged women. I hate to say that, but certainly across the developing world, many countries and many parts of many countries have not come very far in treating women with dignity. In a large part of the world, women are second-class citizens. 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

My vision of a world is one that is built on sustainable values and practices, because there won't be a world if we don't figure that one out. And 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, because they must be -- they have so much to contribute -- and that's the economic opportunity that the world is missing. And then a world where a woman's voice really makes a difference. Because we have a different set of values, and if we speak them and live them, then the world will reflect that. That's bound to be a more equitable and just place.

--Pat Mitchell, first woman president and CEO of PBS, president and CEO of The Paley Center for Media and organizer of TEDWomen

I think I have a profound desire to really see if it's possible for us to evolve out of a violent paradigm, out of a violent mentality, and to actually know what the world would be like if we weren't living in that. I'm very curious about it. So I think the idea that we are murdering and dropping bombs on people ... the idea that there are women across this planet who have no rights and cannot live their lives even a quarter of the way they should be living, 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

We're a global society; we're a global community. Everyplace I go, everyone's the same. 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. That's the only way to do it. And they all want the same thing -- they all have families, they all have homes, 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. There's no exception. And that's really powerful. It's really powerful to see that we really are all the same. We all need the same things, and we all get it from the same place. So in that alone, we have become a global society, and what we do has an impact. What I see is all of it coming together. ... It's kind of exciting to see how we all are connected now, completely connected.

--Cameron Diaz, actress and longtime 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. However, saying that, 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. Men can be feminists, too! 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. Giving women equal rights, the same opportunities. Women are the mothers. We have to value and respect mothers.

--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, they are not aware 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 the 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 know this -- and we have to undo these lessons which have been learned by all of us. And so it will be no small matter. But we can undo it. We can learn to see each other and see ourselves in each other and recognize that human beings are more alike than we are unalike.

--Maya Angelou, accomplished poet, writer, activist and teacher

I am a hopeful person. I don't think that humankind was created the way we were, with this ability to evolve upward spiritually; I don't think that that happened in order for us to then destroy ourselves. So I have to believe that -- it sounds so trite -- that forces of light and consciousness, in humanity, are going to win out. But we're going to have to work hard and be very brave. And expect a backlash. And understand that it's men and women together, with women leading the way -- I'm sorry, but 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 co-founder of The Women's Media Center

[My wish] is that people pay attention, look to their neighbors. I think we've lost so much community. I think that's one of the things I've appreciated seeing most in [the villages I've visited]: just the sense of community, where like an entire family, an entire community, they take care of each other. We've really lost that. And when you lose that on a personal level, you lose that on a global level, as well. So [my wish is that we] regain that.

--Natalie Portman, actress and Ambassador of Hope for FINCA International, an organization that promotes micro-lending to empower women in poor countries

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 power -- I 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 co-founder of the Nobel Women's Initiative

The reason I made women's issues central to American foreign policy was 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. So I did it for a number of reasons, but it makes a difference. I have found it hard to just talk about women's issues; they are people issues, and they are very central to how people treat each other. 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. Governments need to understand that the United States considers the way women are treated as important, and that their societies will be better off if women are treated well. 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


Portions of this article originally appeared at The Women's Media Center.

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