International Women’s Day: Celebrating Women Changemakers

International Women’s Day (IWD), held every year on March 8, is a moment to celebrate the achievements and contributions of women worldwide. From political leaders to activists, artists to scientists, women have made indelible marks on history and society. This year, as we honor their legacies, we highlight a diverse group of international women whose impact transcends borders and inspires generations. Their stories illuminate the ongoing struggle for gender equality and serve as beacons of hope and empowerment for women everywhere, embodying the theme of #inspireinclusion (2024 theme) by championing diversity and inclusivity in their fields.

Former Chair of the Board of Directors: Eileen Concannon’s Story

As we honor International Women’s Day, it’s crucial to acknowledge the remarkable strength and resilience of refugee women. They face unique challenges in their quest for safety and stability. For over 100 million people worldwide, “home” is not merely a birthplace but a safe haven, filled with love and acceptance. Among them are over 30 million refugees, compelled to flee due to persecution or fear of it. Washington state stands as a beacon of hope, leading in refugee welcoming efforts. Organizations like ours (Refugee Women’s Alliance (ReWA)) have played a pivotal role in successfully integrating them into their new communities.

As the child of immigrants, I understand the importance of welcoming those seeking a better life. My parents arrived in the U.S. with little, relying on family and working hard to provide for their children. Inspired by their journey, I joined ReWA after retiring from a law practice, serving as Chair of the Board of Directors. ReWA’s comprehensive services, including education, healthcare, and legal support, have positively impacted thousands of individuals and their families.

Women have made significant strides in our society, thanks to opportunities and support. ReWA’s mission reflects this progress, aiming to empower women and their families from all backgrounds. It is a privilege to be part of an organization that provides a second home for those in need and to contribute to its mission of empowerment.

Read More of Eileen’s Story

Local Women Making a Difference

Rebecca Saldana: WA State Senator, Community Champion, and ReWA Advocate

Rebecca Saldana, a prominent figure in Washington state politics, has dedicated her life to advocating for equity, justice, and the rights of marginalized communities. Born in Washington to her father, a machinist and Mexican immigrant, and her mother, a social worker from the Midwest, Saldana’s upbringing instilled in her a deep sense of compassion and a commitment to public service.

Growing up on a Superfund site, Saldana witnessed firsthand the impact of environmental degradation on communities. Her father’s exposure to toxic chemicals at work, which led to his early retirement, further fueled her passion for environmental justice. She learned the value of conservation and resourcefulness, as her family had to make do with limited resources.

Saldana’s journey into activism and politics began early. She was involved in student government in high school and continued her advocacy work in college. After earning her degree, Saldana worked in various community organizations, including the Tenants Union of Washington State, where she fought for affordable housing and tenants’ rights.

In 2016, Saldana was elected to the Washington State Senate, representing the 37th Legislative District. As a senator, she has been a fierce advocate for workers’ rights, affordable housing, and healthcare access. She has championed legislation to raise the minimum wage, protect workers from wage theft, and expand access to healthcare for low-income families.

Saldana’s advocacy extends beyond her legislative work. She is actively involved in community organizing and has been a vocal supporter of immigrant rights, racial justice, and gender equity. She has worked closely with organizations like the Washington State Labor Council, OneAmerica, and Planned Parenthood to advance progressive policies and empower marginalized communities.

Throughout her career, Saldana has remained true to her values of equity, justice, and inclusivity. She has been a trailblazer for women and people of color in politics, inspiring a new generation of leaders to follow in her footsteps. Her commitment to making Washington a more equitable and just state serves as a testament to her unwavering dedication to public service.

Sharon Tomiko Santos: First Japanese American Woman Elected to the Washington State House of Representatives 

Sharon Tomiko Santos is a prominent figure in Washington state politics, known for her tireless advocacy for community empowerment and diversity. Born and raised in Seattle, Santos has deep roots in the region and a strong commitment to serving its diverse communities.

Santos’ journey into public service began with her involvement in community organizing. She worked with local organizations to address issues like affordable housing, education equity, and economic development. Her passion for social justice and community empowerment led her to pursue a career in politics.

In 1998, Santos was elected to the Washington State House of Representatives, representing the 37th Legislative District, making history as the first Japanese American woman to hold elected office in Washington state. Since then, she has been a steadfast advocate for working families, women, and communities of color. She has championed legislation to improve education, expand healthcare access, and protect workers’ rights.

Santos has also been a leader in promoting diversity and inclusion in government. She has worked to increase representation of women and people of color in elected office and has been a vocal supporter of policies that promote equity and justice for all communities.

Throughout her career, Santos has remained committed to her values of integrity, compassion, and inclusivity. She has been a strong voice for those who are often marginalized and underserved, working tirelessly to ensure that all Washingtonians have a fair and equal opportunity to succeed.

Santos’ dedication to public service and her unwavering commitment to community empowerment have made her a respected leader and a role model for future generations. Her impact on Washington state politics will be felt for years to come, as she continues to fight for a more just and inclusive society.

International Women & their Global Impact​

Dr. Wangari Maathai: Environmentalist, Nobel Prize Laureate

Dr. Wangari Maathai was a trailblazer in African history, achieving several significant milestones. She was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and the first female scholar from East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate, specifically in biology. Through the Kennedy Airlift program, Maathai studied in the United States, obtaining a bachelor’s degree from Mount St. Scholastica and a master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh. Upon returning to Kenya, she became the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a Ph.D., which she received from the University of Nairobi. Additionally, she made history as Kenya’s first woman professor.

Beyond her academic accomplishments, Maathai was a leading figure in Kenya’s democracy movement, bravely opposing the oppressive regime of Daniel arap Moi. In 1977, she launched the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots initiative aimed at combating deforestation and promoting ecological conservation. This movement empowered women to plant trees in their local communities, fostering a sense of environmental stewardship and sustainable practices. The Green Belt Movement’s impact extended beyond Kenya, leading to the planting of over thirty million trees across Africa.

Maathai viewed tree-planting not just as an environmental endeavor but as a tool for advancing democracy, women’s rights, and global solidarity. Her approach, as recognized by the Nobel Committee, was to “think globally and act locally,” highlighting the interconnectedness of environmental, social, and political issues.

Shirin Ebadi: Champion of Human Rights in Iran, Nobel Prize Laureate

One remarkable woman whose life and work embody the spirit of IWD is Shirin Ebadi, born on June 21, 1947, in Hamadan, Iran. Ebadi is an Iranian lawyer, former judge, and human rights activist who became the first Muslim woman and Iranian to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her efforts in promoting human rights, especially those of women, children, and political prisoners in Iran. She took part in the establishment of organizations that placed these issues on the agenda and wrote books proposing amendments to Iran’s succession and divorce laws.

Ebadi studied law at the University of Tehran and became one of the first women judges in Iran in 1969. However, after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, she was dismissed from her position as a judge due to her gender. Undeterred, she continued her legal career as a lawyer, advocating for human rights and representing various political dissidents, journalists, and activists.

Throughout her career, Ebadi has faced harassment, threats, and imprisonment for her work. Despite these challenges, she has remained a vocal advocate for democracy, women’s rights, and the rule of law in Iran. She has also been critical of the Iranian government’s treatment of political prisoners and its restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly. She also wanted to withdraw political power from the clergy and advocated the separation of religion and state.

In addition to the Nobel Peace Prize, Ebadi has received numerous other awards and honors for her human rights work. She has authored several books on human rights, including “Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope,” which chronicles her life and work as a human rights activist in Iran.

Despite facing ongoing persecution and threats to her safety, Ebadi continues to be a leading voice for human rights in Iran and around the world. Her bravery and dedication to the cause of justice have inspired countless individuals to stand up for their rights and freedoms, even in the face of adversity. Her unwavering commitment to democracy and social progress should serve as a reminder for us all to keep working towards a more just and equitable society.

Dr. Michelle Bachelet: Chile’s First Woman President and Minister of Health and Defense

Dr. Verónica Michelle Bachelet Jeria (Michelle Bachelet) is a prominent Chilean politician and a respected advocate for human rights. Her early life was marked by political turmoil, as her father, Alberto Bachelet, a general in the Chilean Air Force, was arrested and tortured for his opposition to the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Michelle and her mother, Ángela Jeria, were also detained and subjected to torture before they went into exile first in Australia and then in East Germany.

Despite the challenges she faced, Bachelet pursued a career in medicine, specializing in pediatrics and public health. Her experiences under Pinochet’s regime fueled her commitment to social justice and human rights. Bachelet became involved in politics and joined the Socialist Party of Chile.

In 2000, Bachelet was appointed Minister of Health by President Ricardo Lagos, becoming the first woman to hold that position in Chile. She later served as Minister of Defense from 2002 to 2004, another first for a woman in Chile. Her tenure as Minister of Defense was notable for its focus on reforming the military and improving civilian-military relations.

Bachelet’s political career reached its peak when she was elected as the first woman President of Chile in 2006. She served a four-year term, focusing on progressive social reforms, including improvements to healthcare and education. Her government also made strides in reducing poverty and inequality in Chile. After stepping down from the presidency in 2010, Bachelet took on an international role as the head of UN Women, the United Nations entity dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women. In 2014, she was re-elected as President of Chile, serving a second term until 2018.

In 2018, Bachelet was appointed as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, where she continues her advocacy for human rights around the world. Her leadership and commitment to social justice have earned her international acclaim and admiration, making her one of the most influential figures in Chilean and global politics.

Dr. Tsai Ing-wen, First Woman President of Taiwan

Born in 1956 in Taipei City, Dr. Tsai Ing-wen’s upbringing was rooted in the values of hard work and perseverance. Her family background, with parents running a small auto repair shop, instilled in her the spirit of small and medium-sized enterprises—professional, dynamic, resilient, and hard-working.

Tsai’s academic journey is a testament to her dedication to education. She graduated from National Taiwan University with a Bachelor of Laws degree in 1978, followed by a Master of Laws degree from Cornell University Law School in 1980, and a Ph.D. in Law from the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1984. Her specialization in international trade law and competition law laid the foundation for her future contributions to Taiwan’s economic development.

Tsai’s career in public service began in the late 1980s when she joined Taiwan’s trade negotiation delegation. She played a crucial role in Taiwan’s bid to join the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which eventually led to Taiwan’s admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2002. Tsai’s expertise in trade negotiations and her role as Chief Legal Advisor during key negotiations were instrumental in Taiwan’s economic transformation.

In the realm of cross-strait relations, Tsai’s contributions are equally significant. She served as Senior Adviser to the Mainland Affairs Council and the National Security Council, and later as Chairperson of the Mainland Affairs Council, where she dedicated her efforts to the development of cross-strait relations. Tsai’s political career took a new turn when she joined the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2004. She became a DPP legislator at-large and was later appointed as vice premier. Tsai made history as the first woman to chair a major political party in Taiwan when she was elected DPP chairperson for two successive terms.

In 2012, Tsai made history once again as Taiwan’s first female presidential candidate representing the DPP. She was elected as the nation’s 14th-term president in 2016, becoming the first woman head of state in Taiwan and the first woman head of state in Asia not born into a political family. Tsai’s re-election in 2020 with the highest total votes in history reaffirmed her position as a beloved leader in Taiwan. Tsai Ing-wen’s journey is a testament to the power of perseverance, education, and leadership.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Africa’s First Woman President

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s historic presidency, marked by significant strides in rebuilding Liberia and promoting gender equality, serves as a testament to the transformative power of women in leadership. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a Liberian politician and economist who served as the 24th President of Liberia from 2006 to 2018. She was the first woman head of state in Africa and is known for her efforts to rebuild Liberia after years of civil war and economic devastation.

Born on October 29, 1938, in Monrovia, Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf spent much of her early life in Liberia before moving to the United States to further her education. She studied economics and public administration at Harvard University and later worked for the United Nations Development Programme and other international organizations.

Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia in the 1980s and became involved in politics, serving in various government positions. She ran for president in 1997 but was defeated. After years in exile during the presidency of Charles Taylor, she returned to Liberia and successfully ran for president in 2005, winning a runoff election against footballer George Weah.

During her presidency, Johnson Sirleaf focused on rebuilding Liberia’s infrastructure, promoting economic development, and improving healthcare and education. She also worked to strengthen Liberia’s democratic institutions and promote gender equality, appointing many women to top government positions.

In 2011, Johnson Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee and Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman, for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work. Johnson Sirleaf stepped down as president in 2018, following the election of George Weah as her successor. As we honor Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on International Women’s Day, let us also celebrate the countless women who, like her, are breaking barriers, shattering stereotypes, and making the world a better place for future generations.