Thursday, March 05, 2009

Remember the Working Class Roots of International Women's Day

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Remember the working class roots of International Women's Day

Hetty Alcuitas
Reposted from

As March 8 quickly approaches, it is a good time for working women to take a moment to remember the historical roots of International Women’s Day and take stock of our current conditions as working-class and other marginalized women under the current economic crisis.

While governments and mainstream-media reports feed us with myths about the reasons for the crisis and ways to deal with it, many working-class women around the province have already been dealing with their day-to-day struggle of putting food in their children’s mouths and the survival of their families.

The worsening crisis is creating more fear amongst working women because of the disappearing safety net and massive layoffs. In reality, many women in B.C. have long been feeling the impacts of the government’s neo-liberal policies on their daily lives. An increase in the flexibilization of labour has pushed many women into casual or part-time jobs. The continued lack of a national child-care program directly impacts women’s ability to enter or stay in the workforce. Immigrant and migrant women find themselves in the poorest of jobs, often filling Canada’s cheap labour needs. And all along, continued government cuts to social spending, including housing, welfare, education, and health care, hit women and children the hardest. We expect the crisis to only worsen for working-class and marginalized women in B.C., across Canada, and throughout the world.

But we know that this crisis and women’s resistance to it is not something new.

One hundred years ago, in 1908, in the midst of turbulent political and economic times prior to World War I, over 20,000 women garment workers staged a general strike for 13 cold, New York winter weeks. Their call was for better pay and working conditions. Inspired by these Italian and Jewish immigrant garment workers, socialist and feminist delegates to the 1910 International Conference of Socialist Women in Copenhagen called for an annual International Women’s Day.

For the next 40 years, International Women’s Day was a day of militant demands and actions. In 1911, 148 garment workers, mostly immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe, died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. The women had led a massive strike by garment workers and were struggling to form a union to change their disastrous working conditions. These demands were carried in early International Women’s Day marches.

On March 8, 1917, Russian women went on strike for “Peace, Bread and Land”. With two million Russian soldiers dead and dismal work and living conditions at home, Russian women kicked off a wave of food riots, political strikes, and demonstrations that would end in the Russian Revolution. During World War II, women took to the streets on March 8 to demonstrate against fascist forces that were on the rise throughout Europe.

But during the Cold War era, widespread International Women’s Day street demos came to an end in North America and Europe. By the late 1950s, the day was celebrated among fewer women, often indoors in small meeting halls and homes.

Inspired by revolutionary struggle in the Third World, the antiwar movement, and organizing in North America against national oppression and systemic racism, the “second wave” women’s movement emerged in the 1960s. In places like Vietnam, the Philippines, South Africa, Algeria, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Iran, Nicaragua, and Northern Ireland, women were armed and fighting for their own liberation in the context of national liberation struggles. After 20 years of quiet, in-door commemorations, International Women’s Day was revived as a day of action, solidarity, and resistance as imperialism ravaged the lives of women the world over.

Today, for working-class women and children, the chaos and crisis caused by imperialism is a daily fact of life. At the same time, the organization and resistance of the people is growing—often with women in the lead as we stand up for ourselves and our sisters, our families, and our communities.

Hetty Alcuitas is a member of Grassroots Women.

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