New York City, 1909: The Socialist Party of America holds an event commemorating a 1908 strike by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, a labour organisation that played an extremely prominent role in reforming working conditions at the turn of the 20th century. It had a great deal invested in the subject, as garment workers laboured in extremely harsh and dangerous conditions. The Triangle Fire was probably the most famous example of the working environment for workers, mostly women, who assembled women’s wear, but safety and abuse were systemic problems across the industry, making it perhaps unsurprising that workers struck regularly.
The socialist movement of the time was much larger and more robust, and continued to be well into the 1930s, when socialists began to struggle for traction. Their goals of social justice and equality dovetailed with a number of marginalised groups across the US, including women fighting for the vote, people of colour struggling for social equality, disabled people demanding inclusion, and many more. (Let’s not forget that Helen Keller was a radical socialist who both wrote and spoke on subjects like suffrage and autonomy for disabled people, Miracle Worker and all its saccharine baggage aside.) Organised labour was a significant part of their work, as the industrial revolution was endangering low-income people all over the world and creating previously unimaginable working conditions that needed action.
The first Women’s Day actually fell in late February, and in fact the event didn’t start falling on a regular date until 1914. But the early Women’s Day celebrations had a note that today’s do not: The event was known not as International Women’s Day, but International Working Women’s Day, and it was specifically about labour organising and socialist solidarity. While these things are discussed in some regions of the world — especially Communist nations — on 8 March every year, the day has become more diffused and less pointed, as indeed have social concerns for labour in general, with progressives growing increasingly less concerned about labour rights.
Celebrants initially explicitly linked International Working Women’s Day to the commemoration of a strike and socialist women’s conferences. Early events included demonstrations in the streets across the world by women demanding fair pay, the right to vote, access to elected positions, and an end to employment discrimination. The work of organisers and marchers focused heavily on the role of women in the workplace, a growing concern in an era when more and more women were going to work, and most of those women were lower and working class — because wealthy and middle class women primarily stayed at home — and many of those women didn’t have powerful voices unless they could rally together and force society as a whole to listen to them. International Working Women’s Day provided a tremendous sources of empowerment to women worldwide who weren’t being heard. It contributed to suffrage, antidiscrimination laws, labour laws, and other key social reforms.
And at some point along the way, it became just ‘Women’s Day.’
This might not seem like it matters very much. On International Women’s Day now, women across the world include concerns about the workplace in their rallies, and, just like their sisters a century ago, they also draw attention to other inequalities and concerns. But something important is erased in the elision of ‘working,’ stripping away the socialist history of the event and the specific climate that surrounded the early years of the event. Women used to get in violent demonstrations! They were arrested! They chained themselves to things! Now it’s speeches and quiet events about ‘equality.’
A day specifically focused on working women and women’s labour could be an incredible thing. People could talk not just about the challenges facing women in the workplace, but also the devaluation of women’s labour at home. Women raising children or caring for family members are treated as unpaid staff, and society assumes that they should be happy to stay at home without compensation — many women do in fact choose this and love doing it, but they should still be paid for the labour they are performing, because it is work. Raising children is work. Helping family members who need assistance with tasks of daily living is work. Running a household is work. Going to school to obtain a degree that will allow a woman to pursue a dream career is work. Even when a spouse has an income sufficient to support the household, that doesn’t mean a woman who chooses or is forced to stay at home shouldn’t be paid for it.
Moreover, International Working Women’s Day can provide an opportunity to discuss unpaid intellectual and emotional labour. Women working in professional fields are often assumed to be available for free intellectual labour — see for example the heavy reliance on unpaid ‘content’ from professional women, the people who swirl to ‘pick the brains’ of women professionals, and other expectations that women provide intellectual labour for free. Women journalists, programmers, and other professionals actually have specific training, qualifications, experience, and skills and they should be compensated accordingly, not treated like vending machines for content and information.
Emotional labour, too, has become a growing topic of discussion in recent years and International Working Women’s Day would provide an excellent platform for bringing that out. Women are expected to provide emotional support on top of their other work on a daily basis, something which seems to perennially surprise men despite being repeatedly reminded, though occasionally they remember for more than a minute because a man told them all about it. Women in the workplace are treated not like colleagues, but therapists and advice columnists. Women in academia are expected to mentor and support their advisees and students emotionally in ways that their male counterparts are not. Women are treated as inherently ‘nurturing’ and thus are expected to mother everyone regardless of professional relationship, which devalues working women as well as those who do mother in some settings and/or provide professional counseling services. Moreover, the notion that women are wise nurturers in the first place is deeply offensive, as is the social pressure that women should constantly be willing to educate and handhold — an issue that comes up repeatedly in online settings, where female activists are asked to provide information that’s readily available on Google for those who care to look for it.
So go forth, my friends, and celebrate International Working Women’s Day the way it was meant to be celebrated: With a march in the street and a fight for the workers.
Image: Happy Women’s Day, Shruti Biyani, Flickr