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International Women's Day: Note to your teenaged self

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Commemorating 101 years, International Women's Day celebrations worldwide will mark its theme to connect with girls and inspire their futures. (iStock)

Building on a 101-year-old tradition, International Women's Day, is being celebrated Thursday under the banner to connect with girls and inspire their futures.

Over one million men and women honoured the day for the first time in 1911 in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, marching in rallies vying for women's right to work, vote and hold public office.
It has since grown into a global day of action recognizing women's achievements and highlighting barriers that are yet to be broken.

In honour of the theme, the CBC Community team asked for Twitter advice from leading Canadian women -- on Parliament Hill, at Toronto City Hall, in the boardroom and on the ice  -- about what they would say to their teenaged self.

A handful of women responded with what they wished they had known back in the hallways of their high schools.
We also spoke to three prominent Canadian women in greater detail:
  • Carolyn Bennett, Liberal Member of Parliament, St. Paul's
  • Judy Rebick, Activist, writer 
  • Kristyn Wong-Tam, City councillor, Toronto-centre Rosedale

Carolyn Bennett
Liberal Member of Parliament, St. Paul's 

All through high school, Carolyn Bennett had brains and brawn.

She was a straight-A student at an all-girls private school in Toronto, playing ice hockey and raising dollars for summer camp.

"It wasn't a sort of social life that was about boys," except for when it was time for the school dance, she quips.

After falling sick in Grade 9, Bennett had to play catch up with her dream.

"Once I figured out I wanted to be a doctor, I was driven."

But not every student was so studious. There was an in-crowd - those who chased boys - and an out-crowd - those who chased books.

"There was a certain segregation of the people who were focused on school and the people who were focused on social life or boys."

So long as she arrived at her destination - a degree in medicine at the University of Toronto - Bennett cared little for the so-called cool girls. There were mean girls, too, but they were not worth hurt feelings, she says.

"You really don't have to worry what the jerks think of you," she says "Wanting to be liked by everyone is not necessarily a wise course."

She took her own advice in 1989 when she opposed the merger of Women's College Hospital and Toronto General Hospital. A member of the TGH's board crossed the street to avoid speaking with her.

"I'm sticking to my principles and I cannot worry what they think."

Judy Rebick
Activist, writer

When Judy Rebick was in her teens, not only were girls not seen to be able to do well in math or physics or chemistry, they were told they should not. 

Girls cannot be doctors; girls cannot study science were regular mantras, she says, repeated by her family, her teachers, her peers and the mainstream media.

But she did it anyway. Eventually, she would earn an undergraduate degree in science.

"I did whatever everybody told me I couldn't."

Breaking convention was the norm for Rebick. But what she wanted to do was write, she says, and it would take years for her to return to it. By rebelling, she moved further from it, studying science in university instead of English.

"Instead of letting my heart define what I did, I let other people define it."

A self-proclaimed rebel, Rebick,valued her unmarried and childless aunt, who always seemed happier than her own mother, at a time when marriage and having children were pushed to the top of the priority list, she says.

"She seemed a lot happier than my mother," she says. "She did that on her own."

But in her teens, she was lacking a strong female role model. 

"I think it made me a little bit more independent than I might have been otherwise."

Now in her late 60s and still a rebel, she says, she wrestles with the thought of being a role model herself.

"I haven't really followed convention at all personally or in my career," she says.

"You have to have a lot of drive and courage to live like I did."

Kristyn Wong-Tam
City councillor, Toronto-centre Rosedale

Afraid to reveal her sexuality, Kristyn Wong-Tam stifled herself in high school.

"I was very shy in high school," she says. "Largely, because I was coming out of the closet."

A timid teen, Wong-Tam says she had little self-confidence, trying to navigate the turbulent teen years and her sexuality.

"I didn't want people to know I was gay."

When she came out at 16, she sought refuge with an older LGBT community.

"They moved through their world and the community with such freedom and independence," she says. "I knew that's what I wanted."

And it is what she wants for young gay teenagers, hiding their sexuality or being ostracized for it.

"We need to demonstrate to them that they are safe," she says.

At first, her parents were not accepting.

"I had to struggle with explaining to my parents who I was."

"After a few years of conversation, dialogue and education...they came around," she says.

"Today they are my biggest supporters."

Equally, she says, her biggest inspiration is her mother who spoke little English but worked hard and emboldened her daughters to strive high.

"Because mommy is smart, her daughters are smart," her mother would say.

Now, inside Toronto City Hall, Wong-Tam says she is a role model -- an obligation she assigns to all women in leadership.

"That's the way I see myself," she says."Now that I'm here in this position of political power, how can I open the doors for others?"

The Community team wants to hear what advice you would give your teenaged self. Post your note-to-self in the comments below, in our Facebook group or send them to You can also tweet us @cbccommunity.

We'll share some of your advice in a community comments piece.

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