Gray Panthers of San Francisco
March 2007 Newsletter
March 8th, International Women's Day
International Women’s Day is being celebrated around the world on Thursday, March 8. International Women’s Day goes back to 1908 when women workers in the needle trades marched through New York City’s Lower East Side to protest child labor, sweatshop working conditions, and demand votes for women.
A History of International Women's Day: "We Want Bread and Roses Too" from Womankind (March 1972.)
(Editor's note: This is a historical look at the origins of International Women's Day in the USA and how it spread throughout the world.)
International Women's Day, a holiday celebrated world wide, honors working women and women’s struggle everywhere. Taught that women's place in history is relatively undistinguished, it should be a real source of pride and inspiration to American women to know that International Women's Day originated in honor of two all women strikes which took place in the U.S.
On March 8, 1857, garment workers in New York City marched and picketed, demanding improved working conditions, a ten hour day, and equal rights for women. Their ranks were broken up by the police. Fifty-one years later, March 8, 1908, their sisters in the needle trades in New York marched again, honoring the 1857 march, demanding the vote, and an end to sweatshops and child labor. The police were present on this occasion too.
In 1910 at the Second International, a world wide socialist party congress, German socialist Clara Zetkin proposed that March 8th be proclaimed International Women's Day, to commemorate the US demonstrations and honor working women the world over. Zetkin, a renowned revolutionary theoretician who argued with Lenin on women's rights, was considered a grave threat to the European governments of her time; the Kaiser called her “the most dangerous sorceress in the empire."
The labor struggle in the US is an exciting one, but it traditionally concentrates on men. A little examination shows that women carried their weight and their share from the beginning, both supporting the men’s organizing and quite soon, after realizing that women's needs were ignored in the existing unions, forming women's caucuses or all women's unions. The first all women strikes took place in the 1820's in the New England tailoring trades. The idea of women striking and demanding better conditions, decent wages, and shorter hours, apparently provided great amusement to the townsfolk of the peaceful mill towns. It would be interesting to know how our sisters a century and a half ago felt about not having their lives and aspirations taken seriously.
The most famous of the early strikes took place at the Lowell cotton mills in Massachusetts. Here young women worked eighty-one hours a week for three dollars, one and a quarter of which went for room and board at the Lowell company boarding houses. The factories originally opened at 7 am, but foremen,noticing that women were less "energetic" if they ate before working, changed the opening hour to 5 am., with a breakfast break at 7 a.m. (for one-half hour). In 1834, after several wage cuts, the Lowell women walked out, only to return several days later at the reduced rates. They were courageous but the company had the power; a poor record or a disciplinary action could lead to blacklisting. In 1836 they walked out again, singing through the streets of the town:
Oh, isn't it a pity such a pretty girl as I
Again they returned to work within a few days. In l844 serious organizing led to the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. Their prime demand was the ten hour day. The leadership and activity of this union is credited with initiating some of the earliest reforms in the conditions of the textile industries.
In the period of intense labor activity following the Civil War, when widowhood and general hard times forced thousands of women into the labor force, thus causing panic and hostility on the part of men, women found themselves excluded from most of the national trade unions. So they formed their own, including the Daughters of St. Crispin, a union of women shoemakers. During this era unions were formed by woman cigar makers, umbrella sewers, and printers, as well as tailoresses and laundresses.
The clothing workers formed some of the most famous unions in U.S. history, notably the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, founded about 1900. The garment trade shops in the big cities, such as New York, were deplorable. Fire hazards were rife, light was scant, the sound of machinery deafening, the environment polluted. Women were fined for virtually anything - talking, laughing, singing, machine oil stains on the fabric, stitches too large or too small. Overtime was constant and required, but pay for it was not. With the support of the National Women's Trade Union League, founded in 1903 - a combination of working women and middle-class, often professional women who supported the working women's struggle - the shirtwaist makers launched a series of strikes against Leiserson and Company and Triangle Waist Company, two of the most notorious shops in New York. Called the "Uprising of the 20,000", these actions culminated in the first long-term general strike by women, putting to death tne tiresome arguments that they were unable to organize and carry out a long hard struggle.
For thirteen weeks in the bitter dead of winter, women between 16 and 25 years of age picketed daily, and daily were clubbed by police and carried off in "Black Maria" police vans. The courts were biased in favor of the sweatshop owners; one magistrate charged a striker, "You are on strike against God and Nature, whose prime law it is that man shall earn his bread in the sweat of his brow. You are on strike against God." This elicited a cablegram from George Bernard Shaw, who with other Europeans was following the course of U.S. labor history. He wrote: "Delightful. Medieval America always in intimate personal confidence of the Almighty."
The strike was ultimately broken, as settlements were made shop by shop, but the talent and endurance of the women made it impossible for people to go on claiming that labor organizing was for men only. One year after the strike was broken the infamous Triangle fire occurred. Trapping women on the upper floors (the fire doors had been bolted from the outside to prevent walkouts by the workers) the fire took l46 lives, most of the women between the ages of 13 and 25, most of them recent emigrants to the U.S.
The employers were tried; one was fined $20. A settlement was made to the families of the dead women for $75 per death. Rose Schneiderman, a Garment Workers organizer, berated the community for supporting the law and institutions that made such tragedies possible. "I know from my own experience that it is up to the working people to save themselves," she proclaimed. "The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement."
This has been but a fraction of the history of American working women; part of this fraction was enough to inspire an International holiday. Russia first celebrated March 8 after the Revolution; it is not often recognized that one of the major sparks of the Russian Revolution was a mass strike in 1917 by Russian women textile workers. Chinese women began celebrating in l924, paralleling a strong women's movement in the Chinese Communist party. When the women’s liberation movement began in the U.S. and Britain, Women's Day was rediscovered and revived as a feminist holiday. In 1970 the revolutionary Uraguayan Tupamaros celebrated March 8 by freeing 13 women prisoners from Uraguay's jails.
The story of American working women is often tokenly recognized by referring to great heroines of the movement Mother Jones, Ella Reeve Bloor, Kate Mullaney, Sojourner Truth, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. These were remarkable women and so were their stories. A good cure for depression is to read a chapter of Flynn's autobiography or reread the account of Mother Jones terrorizing scabs and participating in the 1919 steel strike at the age of 90. But it should not be forgotten that these were individual women, and that the bulk of the' organizing, struggling, as well as succeeding and failing, was done by ordinary women whom we willnever know. These were women who, realized the tactical necessity of standing and working together lest they be destroyed individually, women who put to shame the ridiculous theories of "woman's place'," women who in the famous Lawrence textile strike carried picket signs reading "We want Bread and Roses, too", symbolizing their demands for not only a living wage but a decent and human life, and so inspired James Oppenheim’s song "Bread and Roses"
As we come marching, marching, in the beauty of, the day
As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days
Ronnie Gilbert, of the Weavers, sang Bread and Roses at Tillie Olsen's memorial service recently.