The lines were slow and long, snaking around the State Department’s huge building complex in Washington, DC, on this chilly morning. But the excitement was growing among the hundreds of (mostly) women lining up to attend the 100th Anniversary of International Women’s Day celebration. I was very happy to be one of them.  

Reading through the program of the ten extraordinary “Women of Courage” who were being honored that day, I was startled to see the name of Guo Jianmei, China’s best-known female lawyer. I was instantly transported back to an emotional moment some 12 years ago, when I accompanied then First Lady Hillary Clinton to China as her speechwriter. It was a hot day in Beijing, and we were tired from walking up a long flight of stairs to the 5th floor. Our destination was the Women’s Law Center, founded by Ms. Guo.

The minute we entered the office, Mrs. Clinton was surrounded by an excited and emotional group of women lawyers. “You have no idea how meaningful it is that you have come to see us, and how much you have inspired my own daughter through your fight for women’s rights,” said one of the lawyers. I saw one woman crying in the back, amazed, I think, that America’s First Lady was sitting down with them, in their small and dingy offices, discussing legal issues and strategies, as if she was one of them. Which, of course, she was.

It struck me how brave these women were.This was the first such center in China focused exclusively on women’s rights and dedicated to improving the lives of the vulnerable and marginalized. These women were dedicating their legal skills to empowering others, often at enormous personal risk. Even then, the Chinese government was trying to shut down their work, and we heard later that some of these lawyers were questioned by government officials after Mrs. Clinton left. More recently, the Chinese government pressured Peking University to close down the Women’s Law Center. Mrs. Guo responded by establishing her own law firm.

Watching Ms. Guo being honored by Secretary of State Clinton yesterday gave me that sense of full circle. Having met many years ago on the other side of the globe, here they were together again—two remarkable women who have struggled in their own lives to break the barriers women face every day, and who have inspired so many others to do the same.

Another award recipient struck a personal chord with me. Agnes Osztolykan was elected to the Hungarian Parliament in 2010, her country’s only female Roma Member of Parliament. A few years ago I had visited IYF-supported programs in Hungary, some aimed specifically at improving conditions for Roma youth, often called gypsies. Having met a number of Roma girls in the program and heard their heartbreaking stories of abuse, discrimination, and rejection, I had a sense of how much Ms. Osztolykan must have endured—and overcome—to stand where she is today.

Building on this theme of universal women’s rights, Mrs. Clinton spoke passionately about the role of women in the recent uprisings across the Arab world. “We saw women out in force in Cairo, where they expected to have a voice and have a vote. These Egyptian women,” she said, her voice rising, “have as much right as men to reshape their government. They deserve to be at the table and making these choices.” The room exploded in applause.

Even as we celebrate the historic progress that has been made, we know women and girls everywhere still face enormous and seemingly insurmountable challenges. Yet for a few hours yesterday, I was inspired by women of all ages, backgrounds, and nationalities who often at great personal risk broke the rules and led the way to greater freedom and democracy in their countries. For me, it was an emotional reminder of how important it is to keep lifting up these stories and voices of courage and hope. Often, it’s the only thing that keeps us going.