International Women's Day: Understanding the Free Exercise of Choice

03/09/2015 01:21 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2015

Sunday, March 8, 2015 is International Women's Day. The United Nations has chosen this year's theme to be "Empowering Women - Empowering Humanity: Picture It!" The theme focuses on envisioning a "world where each woman and girl can exercise her choices... in societies free from violence and discrimination." Yet, how does this happen? As an educated, financially independent woman who was born into post-women's lib California (a notably liberal State), to parents who fully believed that my sister and I were intrinsically equal to anyone and who taught us that we had the ability and duty to achieve our best out of life, I still struggle to envision a world where women are truly free and able to exercise their choices.

I am grateful every day that legally I am free to make choices and accorded equal rights under the law, which is significantly more freedom to have than women in many countries. Culturally, emotionally and mentally, however, what does a world in which I can exercise my choices free from discrimination and violence look like? I have no idea and apparently I am not alone in this failure of imagination. John Stuart Mill, the nineteenth century British philosopher, wondered in his work The Subjection of Women what would happen in a world where "women's nature were left to choose it's direction as freely as men's." He postulated that "no one can safely pronounce that...there would be any material difference, or perhaps any difference at all, in the character and capacities [of both sexes] which would unfold themselves."1

I have trouble envisioning a world where I can exercise my choices free from discrimination because I believe that I am not "free" for all of following reasons. I recognize and struggle against the areas in my life that are warped by societal views of me as "female" instead of "individual." I must be consistently vigilant against believing in the negative cultural stereotypes about my gender, such as size equals value, women are not as strong as men (in all sorts of ways), strong women are cold and mean, or single women are always lonely and dissatisfied, etc. I have to guard against becoming what I fight: a person who sees every negative thing that happens to me as some form of gender oppression - that really is not the case - and does not treat other people as individuals, but as "male" or "female" stereotypes. I am not free due to the very fact that I must police my own mind against buying into beliefs that seek to subordinate me solely due to my gender.

The joy of self-awareness though is not that you recognize the problem, but that by recognizing the problem you can focus on the solution. In order to celebrate this year's International Women's Day, I would like to raise awareness for all of the amazing organizations out there that are working not just on equal rights for women, but on teaching women to see themselves as individuals and explore their own talents and beliefs. Here is a short list of some of my favorite women's organizations and more can be found at I would also love to hear from you about some of your favorite organizations that focus on working with women.

  • Bedari - is dedicated to promoting equal rights for all people through capacity building, education and advocacy in Pakistan. They are specifically focused on working with women and girls for the promotion and protection of their human rights, including addressing issues of gender based discrimination and violence.
  • Girls Inc. - is committed to inspiring girls to reach their potential in all areas of their lives. They focus on providing research-based educational programs that address a broad range of topics including math and science, media literacy, economic literacy, violence prevention and sports participation.
  • Techbridge -focuses on expanding the academic and career options for girls in science, technology, and engineering. They believe every girl needs personal and consistent support to succeed, and to that aim they've created resources for the educators, families and role models who make up a girl's support network.
  • The Women's Legal Centre - a law center committed to working for a South Africa where women live free from violence, free to own their own property, empowered to ensure their own reproductive health rights and able to work in a safe and equal environment.
  • Women for Women International - helps the most marginalized women in countries affected by war and conflict by providing education and resources. They currently work with women in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Kosovo, Nigeria, Rwanda, and South Sudan.
  • Women Living Under Muslim Laws - an international solidarity network extending to more than 70 countries for women whose lives are shaped, conditioned or governed by laws and customs said to derive from Islam. They provide information, research, publications, support, international alerts for action and campaigns, training, and education to strengthen women's individual and collective struggles for equality and their rights.

Take some time today and check out these organizations just to see the myriad of ways that we can help each other be stronger, healthier and more free, not just as women, but as individuals.

Happy International Women's Day - may we all live in a freer world next year.

1 "I consider it presumption in anyone to pretend to decide what women are or are not, can or cannot be, by natural constitution. They have always hitherto been kept, as far as regards spontaneous development, in so unnatural a state, that their nature cannot but have been greatly distorted and disguised; and no one can safely pronounce that if women's nature were left to choose its direction as freely as men's, and if no artificial bent were attempted to be given to it except that required by the conditions of human society, and given to both sexes alike, there would be any material difference, or perhaps any difference at all, in the character and capacities which would unfold themselves." John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women.