former Women's Caucus co-chairs

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, two newly minted Democratic senators, were driving to a luncheon here last week when Klobuchar spotted her husband in an unexpected situation: He was on the street in a business suit bearing a gift-wrapped package.

The women came to a stop, rolled down the window, and Klobuchar asked her husband where he was headed.

To a baby shower, he replied, hosted by the Senate Spouses Club, once the exclusive preserve of women but now a club that is open to more than a dozen men, including former President Bill Clinton and former Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole. The shower was in honor of the wives of Democrats Jim Webb of Virginia and Jack Reed of Rhode Island.

Klobuchar related the anecdote at a March 6 luncheon hosted by EMILY’s List, a political action committee in Washington, D.C., that helps pro-choice Democratic women win office. She used the story to illustrate the progress women have made in the political arena.

"The world has changed!" Klobuchar roared before a cheering crowd of female political activists and donors.

Klobuchar’s story was one of many similar tales told last week at events in Washington, D.C., and around the world in honor of International Women’s Day, a holiday that likely dates to 1908, when women marched through New York City demanding better pay, better working conditions and voting rights.

The March 8 holiday has grown in scope ever since, becoming the seed for a resolution in 1981 in the U.S. Congress that declared the week around March 8 Women’s History Week. In 1987, Congress went one step further, making March Women’s History Month. The resolution been approved Congress every year since.

Although still often undetected by many in the United States and around the globe, International Women’s Day and the days around it have morphed into a kind of high holiday for activists fighting for gender equality.

Bevy of Events

With a bevy of events ranging from celebratory–fundraising galas and awards dinners–to sober–protests for women’s rights and panel discussions on subjects such as female genital mutilation–activist women use the second week of March to celebrate the accomplishments of the past and lay out an agenda for the future.

Recent victories loomed large this year. Of nearly 200 members of the United Nations, 19 have female leaders, according to Martin K.I. Christensen, the Danish author of a Web site called the Worldguide to Women in Leadership. These include eight female presidents in countries such as Chile, Liberia and Ireland, and five prime ministers in countries including Germany and Jamaica.

Women’s global political representation reached a record high of nearly 17 percent in 2006, up almost six points over the last decade, according to a March 1 announcement by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a global parliamentary group in Geneva, Switzerland. Moreover, women preside over a record 35 of the world’s 262 parliaments, including the United States Congress.

Liz Holtzman left, a founding co-chair of the Women's Caucus, with Speaker Pelosi

The January ascension of California Democrat Nancy Pelosi to Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives–the most powerful position the U.S. Congress–lent a particularly triumphant tone to this week’s events in theUnited States.

"I’m often asked what it is like to be Speaker," Pelosi said at a March 6 gala hosted by Women’s Policy, Inc., a non-profit, non-partisan public policy group that works with a group of female lawmakers in the House of Representatives. "I say ‘It’s fabulous!’" she cried as her audience erupted in wild applause.

U.S. activists also cheered the fact that for the first time in U.S. history a woman is running strong in the race to serve as the leader of the most powerful country in the world.

‘A New Era Has Begun’

"Welcome to Washington, where a new era has begun!" EMILY’s List President Ellen Malcolm exclaimed at her group’s March 6 luncheon. "In 2008 we are going to finish the job" and "say ‘Adios’ to George Bush," she continued, urging the audience of about 1,300 donors and activists–most of whom were women–to back Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner in the race for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.

"We want a president who will show our daughters and our granddaughters that they really can grow up to be president," Malcolm said.

In D.C., female activists savored victories at events such as a March 5 toast to female policy "pioneers" at the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum, the former home of suffragist Alice Paul; a March 7 ceremony at the U.S. State Department hosted by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to honor emerging female leaders around the world; a March 7 gala hosted by the International Center for Research on Women featuring actress Meryl Streep in honor of two international organizations that invest in women; and a March 8 "Suffrage Birthday Bash" at the Embassy of Finland in honor of the 90th anniversary of the National Women’s Party, the suffrage group formed by Paul.

Women also turned a serious eye to the future.

At the March 6 EMILY’s List luncheon, Pelosi reiterated her call to end the war in Iraq.

Later that evening, Pelosi and her colleagues California Democrat Lois Capps and Washington Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers, co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, laid out a domestic agenda focused on women’s issues. Their top priorities include plans to encourage women and girls to pursue careers in math, science and engineering, where women are underrepresented, and to raise awareness and help prevent heart disease, the leading killer of women. They also hope to increase the presence of women’s art in the U.S. Capitol building and end discrimination based on genetic information.

First Legislative Goal

The women’s congressional caucus had already achieved its first legislative goal earlier that day when the House passed an International Women’s Day resolution that recognizes progress women have made around the world and calls attention to the need to end persistent forms of discrimination and violence against women.

"Even as we celebrate today, we must remember that there is still plenty of work to do to achieve true equality in the U.S and other parts of the world," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat who sponsored the bill. "Women still earn less, own less and have less access to education and employment than men. There are also millions of women who are trafficked, physically abused and sexually assaulted every day."

Global Women’s Strike, an international women’s rights organization based in London, organized International Women’s Day events pushing for greater equality in the United States and around the world.

The group highlighted activities including a demonstration for mothers’ rights in Philadelphia, a rally for better home care services in San Francisco and a campaign for better treatment of people in poverty and for those with disabilities in Milwaukee.

Worldwide, Global Women Strike supported activities in more than a dozen countries. Female activists and their allies, for instance, waged campaigns for better wages in Guyana, improved conditions for domestic workers in Peru and against gender-based violence in Haiti.

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

For more information:

Inter-Parliamentary Union Release on Women’s Global Political Representation:

Global Women’s Strike: