05/08/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

International Women's Day: We've Come a Long Way, Baby!

On the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day, we celebrate the first ever female best director at the Oscars. Against all odds (and her ex-husband's well-financed film "Avatar"), Kathryn Bigelow also won the best picture award. We women have come a long, long way since 1910!

One hundred years ago, on the first International Women's Day, a woman's place was literally in the home - or on the farm. Women's main role in society was as keeper of the morals. They were expected to preserve their innocence and "civilize" the man they married. In return, a woman was defined by the man she married, and hopefully her husband had the resources to keep her tucked safely inside the home. Divorces were virtually unheard of: one per one thousand marriages (today it's about 50 percent). Life expectancy was 48 years for men and 52 years for women.

One hundred years ago, the Mayor of Houston decreed that during Mardi Gras "masked women" would not be allowed into saloons, seeing this as "no place for a woman, and such conduct can only have a demoralizing effect on the community." Meanwhile in New York City, Margaret Sanger began her decades-long campaign to teach women about birth control in defiance of various "obscenity" laws prohibiting dissemination of contraceptive information.

One hundred years ago, women comprised 15 percent of the workforce, and most of them were young and single. Two-thirds of all schoolteachers were women. Back then, when a woman married, she was expected, and usually required, to quit her job. It was perfectly normal and acceptable for employers to pay women a fraction of what men earned for the same job. Today, women comprise half of the workforce, and most of them are married. Although we still haven't hit parity with men's salaries, we earn just under 80 percent of what men do -- considerably more than women did in 1910.

One hundred years ago, women were nominally accepted at four out of five colleges in the United States. But in practice, women weren't allowed to study the full curriculum available to men. And incredibly, the prestigious university, Cambridge, didn't fully recognize women and their achievements until 1947. Today, in most developed countries, women earn more than half of all advanced degrees. But in developing countries, more than half of all women have never been to school and they account for two-thirds of the world's illiterate people.

One hundred years ago, women did not have the right to vote in any independent country (New Zealand, the first country to enact women's suffrage in 1893 was at the time a British colony). The first women's suffrage parade was held in 1910 in New York City. Although women had ruled countries in the past (Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots for example) no women held political power in 1910. Today, women hold more than 18 percent of parliamentary seats worldwide, over 20 percent in Europe and 17 percent in the United States Congress.

One hundred years ago, women criminals were rare but spectacular. Mother-daughter team Violet and Miriam Charlesworth were sentenced to five years in jail for fraud and conspiracy, having fabricated an elaborate story to bilk a rich, unmarried doctor of several thousands of British pounds. China was a hotbed of women pirates with one of the most notorious, Lo Hon-cho, who took over her dead husband's ships to capture women and sell them into slavery. Today, women criminals are still underrepresented compared to men (one thing that I hope will not change!), but they are no less spectacular. Mafia wives keep their husbands' businesses going while the wiseguys and hitmen are in jail. And in 1998, Karla Faye Tucker earned the dubious distinction of being the first woman put to death in Texas since 1863 -- for having murdered two people with a pickax.

Yup, we've come a long way since that first International Women's Day in 1910. Here's to hoping we go even farther in the next 100 years.