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Pauline Dyson: A day to celebrate universal sisterhood

Some years ago, while on a trip to Sicily, I witnessed my first International Women’s Day held annually worldwide on March 8. From my experience, though, it was rarely celebrated in the United States.

Into the Messina hotel came groups of well-dressed Italian women of all ages driven there by their husbands, fathers and brothers. The Americans in our travel group peeked into the dining room to see women dancing with each other – grandmas with their granddaughters as young as 4, and female acquaintances rocking to the popular live music from an all-male orchestra. Male waiters served what looked to be tasty desserts at tables where a few non-dancing older ladies sat.

We were told at the reception desk that this day was a very special one when women are honored and served by men, perhaps in contrast to the typical Italian household where women traditionally serve men. Male chefs cooked the four-course dinner typical of festive Italian events.

This gender role-reversal took us by surprise. Witnessing the laughter and joy coming from that ballroom, as women of all sizes and shapes boogied around the floor, we asked: “Why does this not happen in our country?”

These memories came to me as I signed up for an International Women’s Day celebration in Buffalo sponsored by the AAUW Buffalo branch and the League of Women Voters, both organizations to which I belong. Like the Italian celebration, ours is being held at a hotel downtown. The program will not include dancing, but rather a discussion on the role of women in today’s world. “Declaring Equality: Renewing a Legacy” concerns the more serious issues of women’s rights in our country as well as traditional cultures where laws and customs often limit opportunities for females.

The legacy of American women who fought to gain rights at the start of the 20th century will be linked, through a dramatic reading, to the concerns of women raised in foreign lands in our International Women’s Day event.

Women’s issues have changed over the years since the first international celebration in northern Europe in 1913. At that time, women’s right to vote and hold property was the focus. Having largely gained these objectives, the movement has evolved to equal pay for equal work and breaking the glass ceiling, the ongoing issues from the feminists of the 1970s.

Today’s movement goes far beyond work issues. Twenty-first century women face disturbing challenges in our homes, schools and workplaces. The goal of women’s organizations is to raise awareness of, and fight for protections against, a wide range of sexual and gender victimization, from human trafficking to rising sexual assaults on college campuses to abused women in domestic relationships.

Beyond these goals of women in Western countries, we now have extended the cause to our sisters in other cultures where the role and status of women is undervalued or denied in the law. Access to education is often limited to women in parts of African, Middle Eastern and Asian cultures.

Today’s event in Buffalo seeks to reinforce our universal sisterhood. We continue to work for future gains while celebrating achievements of the past in our efforts to bring equality, dignity and respect for all women around the world.