This Woman’s Day

International Women’s Day, celebrated on March 8th every year, has been around for more than a century now; but I only learned about it when I lived in Africa for more than five years, twenty-five years ago. In the States, perhaps, people – at least the type of people I knew growing up in comfy, white, suburban New Jersey – didn’t need such reminders of inequality. We had arrived. Or so we were supposed to think.

And, too, where I came from we didn’t give much thought to international issues or causes. My dear Mom, to give one shining example, child of German immigrants, considered the U.S.A. to be the entire universe and our little hometown to be the center of that universe. Why go elsewhere? You might fall off the map, she feared.

According to the website, the purpose of International Women’s Day is to celebrate women’s achievement, raise awareness about discrimination, and take action to drive gender parity across the globe. It’s gratifying to me to see that in recent years more American women than ever are waking to the reality that gender parity in the “land of the free” is far from reached. So this day is an important reminder for all of us, everywhere.

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In Africa, I remember well, International Women’s Day was a cause for jubilation. The women I knew there made themselves special outfits for the occasion – puffy-sleeved, flouncy, colorful cotton dresses and matching headscarves – and gathered together to dance and sing, and, of course, eat. Despite their often difficult lives, they made this women’s day a day of rejoicing and solidarity.

In Segou, Mali, West Africa, a francophone country where I lived and worked for three years, I volunteered at a women’s center near my home and brought with me to one such March 8thInternational Women’s Day celebration a gaggle of girls from my weekly Club Crochet group. These were little girls who lived in my neighborhood and whom I taught how to crochet one afternoon each week using “yarn” made from recycled plastic bags.

Here is a memory of that women’s day occasion, excerpted from my memoir How to Make an African Quilt (Nighthawk Press, 2013):

On March 8th, International Women’s Day, “La Journée Internationale de la Femme,” which is widely celebrated in Mali, thirty of my Club Crochet girls arrived at my house early in the afternoon. We’d made a date to walk together as a group to Centre Benkady, where an International Women’s Day manifestation (event) was being held.

It would be a women’s-only gathering with dancing and singing, so the little girls, aged eight to twelve, had dressed for the occasion in their best lacey, satiny dresses. Instead of their usual flip-flops, some wore plastic sandals with low heels. Their mothers or older sisters had done their hair in braids, bows, and barrettes. Some of the girls even wore lipstick.

We walked the mile to Centre Benkady in the beating sun, holding hands and singing a marching song I’d just made up: “Nous sommes les femmes et nous sommes FORTES!” (We are women and we are STRONG!), stopping to stamp our collective feet when we got to the word “FORTE!” Aminata’s best friend Bintou translated the words for Aminata (my nine-year-old next-door neighbor and pal, whose strict parents didn’t allow her to attend school) because she did not speak French. Aminata shot me a conspiratorial smile. She knew what I was up to.

What a sight we must have been to the people we passed: thirty lively little African girls in party dresses, led by a tall, thin, middle-aged white woman, all laughing, giggling, singing, holding hands, swinging arms, marching and stomping our way down the hot and dusty roads of our quartier (neighborhood), Pelangana.

Most of the people we passed, I knew, wouldn’t know the words of our marching song because they were probably unschooled and didn’t speak French either. So they smiled and waved at us benignly as we paraded by, as though we were just having fun, playing a game. The girls seemed to know, though, as we marched forth on this March 8th, that this was much more than a game. I was leading a mini-revolution that, I hoped, might grow as these girls grew into strong women.

* * *

Those little girls are in their thirties now. I hope that on March 8th this year they might remember that day together as clearly as I do. For me, this March 8th will be especially significant – my own woman’s day! — because I’ll be moving into my new apartment, my “forever home,” as I like to think of it, in Colonia Independencia in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, on that day. The six-month-long wait will be over, gracias a dios. If only I could invite some of those Malian girls-now-women to celebrate this day with me so we could all sing again, “We are women and we are strong!” And we’re patient, resilient, determined, and so much more.

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16 thoughts on “This Woman’s Day”

  1. Beautiful memory Bonnie. It’s great to have this day to celebrate but I hope there is a time soon when women (and blacks and all other non-binary non-whites) don’t need a day or a month: they are respected and included as equals every day of the year.

  2. Lovely memory! Yes, I am quite sure those girls remember that day! You did start a revolution, but one that had been moving ever so slowly! Still, we March on, as my Grandmother pushed my mother’s baby carriage in the Suffrage marches, we worked in food industry, on it goes…

    1. Ah, I can envision your grandmother marching with the baby carriage, dear Carol! Yes, it’s been a slow-moving revolution, but we’ll keep marching… BB xx

  3. Bonnie,

    In 1972, I was a 12 year old who got given her first LP- a compilation of the year’s greatest hits, and Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman”, was one of those songs.

    The lines to the first verse hinted that, for that woman at least, something unpleasant had occurred. Why else would she be “down there on the floor”? She had reached her limits, and, was finally fighting back!

    “I am woman, hear me roar
    In numbers too big to ignore
    And I know too much to go back an’ pretend
    ‘Cause I’ve heard it all before
    And I’ve been down there on the floor
    And no one’s ever gonna keep me down again”

    I had no older female mentor to discuss this with. My mother was an uneducated, Greek immigrant whose lot in life had been to do as her father, then brother, then husband, told her to do. The song sparked this awareness within me, of her lack of independence, and I swore I would never be like her.

    The following year I entered a selective girl’s high school, and the teachers there, taught their bright students to be the very best they could be in life, in every endeavour, and if they encountered barriers or limitations, to find ways to overcome them. Needless to say, that school produced a high quota of lawyers, politicians and writers.

    No other song had such an impact on me, as that Helen Reddy one, until in recent years, where a song was created to promote the concept that in Australia, irrespective of our origins, we are all one people, equal, different, but each providing value.

    “We are one, but we are many
    And from all the lands on earth we come
    We share a dream and sing with one voice:
    I am, you are, we are Australian.”

    The entire song describes the history and the land’s unique features, but it’s the concept of equality that is inspiring.

    In a perfect world, there would be equality of race and gender, and there would be patch worked quilts in every home that told the story of that household’s people. And there would be PRIDE in that story.

    YOU have made a difference to the lives of many little girls, who are now women, and carrying forth the torch for the next generation. Thank you for your efforts, Bonnie.

    Also, I’m tickled pink that you are moving into your new home on such a celebratory day for women! In amidst the unpacking, take a moment to savor the achievement.

    1. Thank you, dear Loula, for sharing this and for adding so richly to the conversation. I deeply appreciate your taking the time to write your heartfelt thoughts and experiences. Keep them coming! — xx

  4. Bonnie, My husband and I met you in 2018 during a reading in San Miguel. I’ve enjoyed reading about your experiences and reminiscing since then. We are coming to San Miguel in March 12th. Please let me know if you have any presentations planned as we would love to see you again. All the Best, Linda Berman

    1. Thank you, Linda. No, no presentations planned in the near future. I’ll be busy moving into my new apartment and settling in. How long will you and your husband be staying in SMA? Best, Bonnie

    1. Thank you, dear Lyn! Just got connected to the Internet here at my new place, so I’m now able to respond. Will take pics as soon as things are where they need to be! — BB

  5. Dear Bon,
    I remember this scene from your book, but I can’t believe it’s been ten years.
    Hopefully, the ERA will be passed. I heard someone this week say it was first proposed 100 years ago. Can we all agree it’s about time?

    1. Do you mean it’s been ten years since that “march” with the little girls, Paul dear? I think it’s been more like 23 years. But who’s counting, right? 🙂 I hope you’re savoring your last semester of teaching. — LU, BB xx

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