by Robyn Banks
The United Nations began celebrating International Women’s Day on the 8th March in 1975, but the day actually has its roots in a variety of strikes and class struggles across industrialised nations long before.
On March 8th in 1857 there was a strike at a New York City garment factory. Here women and girls between the ages of 13 and 25, mostly Jewish, Russian and Italian immigrants, worked 81 hours a week for three dollars, of which one and a quarter went for room and board. The strike was sparked when factory foremen, noticing that the women were less ‘energetic’ if they were allowed to eat before working, changed the factory opening time to 5AM. For a day the factory workers marched and picketed, demanding improved working conditions, a ten hour day and equal rights for women. Their ranks were broken up by police. Fifty one years later, on March 8th 1908, their sisters in the needle trades in New York marched again in honour of the 1867 March, this time demanding the vote, an end to sweatshops and child labour. And then, in November 1909, came the uprising of the 20,000.
And then, in November 1909, came the uprising of the 20,000.
Twenty thousand Yiddish speaking immigrants, mostly young women in their teens or early twenties, launched an eleven week general strike in New York’s shirtwaist industry, picketing daily and being carried off in ‘Black Maria’ police vans. The factories had a specific hierarchal structure, with about a quarter of the women being held in poorly paid ‘learner’ positions. Another 60 percent of women made up the semi-skilled ‘operators’ and at the top stood highly skilled cutters and pattern makers, who were almost exclusively male and at the time the most likely segment of the workforce to be unionised.
This division of labour along skill and gender lines only served to reinforce conservative union leaders ideas about the importance of women in the workforce, and the courts were biased in favour 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.” However, by this time the point had been made and long held ideas about organising working women had been dispelled.
And then, in 1910 at the Second International, German socialist Clara Zetkin proposed that March 8th be proclaimed International Working Women’s Day to commemorate the US demonstrations and honour working women. 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 and had been called “the most dangerous sorceress in the empire.” Sadly, only a year later on March 25th, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York would kill 123 women and 23 men when owners locked the doors to prevent workers taking unauthorised breaks, highlighting how far the labour movement had yet to go.
Today, it’s the women’s movement which still has some way to go when it comes to class analysis.
Today, it’s the women’s movement which still has some way to go when it comes to class analysis. Many feminists may consider Betty Friedan’s 1963 Feminine Mystique, which argued for a woman’s right to work outside the home, to be a seminal work, but women were already working outside the home. It was the fact that only certain low paid and low skilled jobs were available to them which prevented many privileged women from earning. As bell hooks writes, ‘From the outset, reformist white women with class privilege were well aware that the power and freedom they wanted was the freedom they perceived men of their class enjoying’.
It was the freedom to be accomplished in a profession, not the freedom to work in a factory for a pittance, which was fought for and won — and rightly so. But even today, while men continue to earn more than their female counterparts with or without a university degree, ‘women with a degree born in 1958 earned nearly three times as much (198%) as women in unskilled jobs born in the same year — compared to a difference of less than half (45%) between men in the same groups’, and the gap has been slow to narrow. As recently as the 1980s, the UN estimated that while women perform 66% of the world’s work and produce 50% of the food, they earn around 10% of income worldwide.
As recently as the 1980s, the UN estimated that while women perform 66% of the world’s work and produce 50% of the food, they earn around 10% of income worldwide.
There’s a long history of trying to erase class struggle from feminism, and ignoring the working in International Working Women’s day is one way to do this. On March 8th we didn’t celebrate the wives of the factory owners who did nothing to aid the appalling factory conditions women were subjected to, or privileged women who fought with men of their own class for the right to exploit those at the bottom. On March 8th we celebrated the courage and tenacity of the women who organised and fought for their rights in the face of so much adversity, and those who continue to do so the world over.
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