“As an activist for women through almost four decades, I know that no movement for social justice moves forward without struggle, nor does forward movement necessarily go in a straight line.”

Today, March 8, is celebrated around the globe as International Women’s Day . Some decry its commercialization, as corporate sponsors have realized it’s in their best interests to appeal to women who make over 85 percent of consumer purchases around the globe.
But it’s a day whose meaning inspires me to think back to a very special moment on September, 1995.

I was attending the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, where hugely ambitious and thrilling goals were set for improving the lives of women, and by extension their families and the world.

The official conference was in Beijing, but the much larger convocation of activists from nongovernmental organizations—40,000 enthusiastic women and a few good men like my husband—was literally stuck in the mud in Huairu, a suburb an hour’s drive from the city.

Thousands of sleepy people had arrived at dawn on the morning of Sept. 6, to stand packed together under a roof of brightly colored umbrellas, jockeying for the few hundred seats inside the auditorium where then first lady of the United States Hillary Clinton was slated to give a speech.

Thanks to my training in clinic defense, which had taught me how to form a wedge and move expeditiously through even the most aggressive crowd, I was fortunate not only to get inside but to get a seat. The program was running late; Hillary was running even later and the crowd was getting restless.

Just as it seemed a revolt might be brewing, Shirley May Springer Stanton, the cultural coordinator of the conference, sauntered onto the stage and began to sing a capella, ever so softly: “Gonna keep on moving forward. Never turning back, never turning back.”

Then she asked the audience to join her. Pretty soon the house was rocking. By the time the first lady arrived and gave her brilliant “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights” speech, it truly felt like the global movement for women’s rights was unstoppable.

Hillary Clinton, Beijing 1995

It was, you might say, an ovular moment.

Where are women today? How far have we come?

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