You’ve Come a Long Way Baby. Maybe.

A few days ago, on International Women’s Day, I joined the millions of women (and hopefully millions of men), who together celebrated the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future.

According to www.internationalwomensday.com (a very cool site which I unfortunately only visited today for the first time, and which I immediately wished I had visited BEFORE March 8, but better late than never as they say, and next year I’ll know where to go to find out what’s happening around the world on March 8…), International Women’s Day was first celebrated in 1911, which makes it 98 years young. (Read about the first IWD here.)

This year, the IWD site documented a total of 970 IWD events in 62 countries around the world. Both the number of events and the number of countries have increased steadily since this comprehensive online resource was launched in 2001.

This year, I celebrated by attending Dubai’s first Women in Film and Television mini film fest where I enjoyed a truly wonderful selection of short films created by women, about women and for women. It was a great way to mark the day.

At the event, a beautiful, young (and female), roving TV reporter asked me if I thought women had made much progress over the last several decades.

I answered without hesitation: “Yes. We’ve come a long way. And we have a long way to go yet.”

Since then, I’ve been reminded of just how far we have yet to go.

These were among the stories I’ve posted on AWR in the past two days: 40 Lashes for 75-Year-Old Syrian Widow in Saudi Arabia  and Court Stops Marriage of 10-Year-Old Yemeni Girl.

I read other stories about grandmothers and single mothers in all parts of Africa who together care for tens of thousands children orphaned by AIDS and/or violence. The compelling tale of one such woman in Kenya who was abandoned by her husband and has founded a refuge is almost beyond belief.

Last week, I got a letter from Plan Canada, which included astonishing statistics such as the fact that nearly 70 per cent of the 1.5 billion people in the world that live on $1 a day or less are female.

That figure caused me to pause and reflect on our consumer society.

When I was 12 years old, Phillip Morris launched a new brand of ultra-slim, ultra-long cigarettes designed to appeal especially to women – they were made out to be sexy, elegant and fashionable. They called them Virginia Slims.

Forty years later, I clearly remember the TV ads and their seductive jingle (I can even sing the tune, albeit off key!):

You’ve come a long way, baby, to get where you got to today. You’ve got your own cigarette now, baby. You’ve come a long, long way.

Those sexy cigarettes turned out to be more of a curse than a reward. According to Wikipedia:

A report by the Surgeon General of the United States has interpreted these marketing strategies as attempting to link smoking “to women’s freedom, emancipation, and empowerment.”

This report also tied the increase of smoking among teenage girls to rises in sales of Virginia Slims and other “niche” brands marketed directly to women.

As I contemplated these stories, and experienced being bombarded with messages about products that supposedly make us sexier, more desirable, and more feminine – just like Virginia Slims were meant to – I wondered if I hadn’t spoken too quickly to that young female reporter about how far we had come.

But then I focused on the fact that there’s hope amidst the tragedy: Canadian grandmothers create bonds of solidarity with their African counterparts; Plan International’s Because I Am a Girl campaign fights gender inequality, promotes girls’ rights and lifts millions of girls out of poverty.

And I thought about all the amazing, inspiring, gorgeous women I know.

Yes, there is a long way to go. But women have what it takes to make it. And it doesn’t have anything at all to do with having our own cigarette now, baby.

For evidence of the power of women to drive future economic prosperity, see: Women Are Agents of Geo-Political Change.

For the lighter side of how far we’ve come, see also: Women: Then and Now; Women: Stick to Embroidery and Kittens; and How to Be a Good Wife (1954).