In an event at the White House on Monday, President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle marked International Women's Day. The president and first lady were joined by Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as U.S. Secretary of State, as they noted the progress women have made in the United States and around the world as well as the obstacles that continue to stand in their way.
Addressing students from several Washington area schools as well as dignitaries such as African-American activist and social educator Dorothy Height, the Obamas referred to the progress women in America have made over the decades in securing their rights.
Michelle Obama said the purpose of the gathering was not only to pay tribute to luminaries in the struggle for equality, but also to what she called the "quiet heroes" who, in the process of shaping America, achieved extraordinary things. "We honor the women who traveled those lonely roads to be the first ones in those court rooms, to be the first ones in those board rooms, to be the first ones on those playing fields, and to be the first ones on those battlefields. We honor women who refused to listen to those who would say that you couldn't or shouldn't pursue your dreams," she said.
President Obama told those gathered in the White House East Room that the story of America's women, like that of the United States itself, has peaks and valleys, but that ultimately it has been one of progress against hardships that women continue to confront. "Even as we reflect on the hope of our history, we must also face squarely the reality of the present -- a reality marked by unfairness, marked by hardship for too many women in America," he said.
The president pointed to some of what he called the "statistics of inequality" -- women earning 77 percent of what men earn; one in four women becoming victims of domestic violence; women making up more than half of the U.S. population while occupying only 17 percent of the seats in Congress, and constituting less than three percent of Fortune 500 company chief executive officers.
Madeleine Albright, who served as Secretary of State during the Clinton administration, pointed to the challenges women still face globally in achieving the same basic rights and dignity as men. Although women have made great strides in gaining legal recognition of their rights, Albright said, they run up against crushing realities.
"Appalling abuses that are still being committed against women. And these include domestic violence, dowry murders, coerced abortions, honor crimes and the killing of infants simply because they are born female. Some say all this is cultural and there is nothing anybody can do about it. I say it is criminal and we each have an obligation to stop it," she said.
Singer and song writer Mozhdah Jamalzadeh explained why she wrote a song for young girls in Afghanistan, who were attacked by men throwing acid. "I came here from Kabul, Afghanistan and I am trying to do everything I can for the women of Afghanistan. I wrote this son, my father and I wrote this song, for the acid victims of Kandahar City -- a few young girls who were trying to make their way home from school when they got attacked by acid. And I thought I had to do something for them," she said.
In his remarks, President Obama referred to women serving in high leadership positions in his administration, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, and others.
And he referred to his daughters, Sasha and Malia. "I think about the world that they, and all of America's daughters, will inherit. And I think about all of the opportunities that are still beyond reach for too many young women, and too many of our brothers and sisters, too many of our sisters and mothers and aunts -- all of the glass ceilings that have yet to be shattered," he said.
Mr. Obama said he ran for president to put the American Dream within the reach of everyone in the United States, regardless of their gender, race, faith or station in life.
At one point, the president added that the story of America over the centuries has been one in which many accomplished women like his wife Michelle have "probably looked across the dinner table at their husbands and thought, 'I'm smarter than that guy.'