Although we're all saying that today is the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day, that's not quite right.
My go-to woman in all things historical, About.com Guide to Women's History Jone Johnson Lewis notes, "International Women's Day was first celebrated on March 19 (not the later March 8), 1911. A million women and men rallied in support of women's rights on that first International Women's Day."
Her article on the origins and history of International Women's Day (IDW) gets into the specifics, so I'll just note a couple of highlights:
- That first March 19, 1911 celebration was called International Working Women's Day and was recognized in four countries -- Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland.
- Six days later a terrible tragedy occurred -- the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire -- in which over a hundred young female workers died. Their deaths continue to be remembered on IDW.
- March 8 became significant because of its history in the international women's movement. Rallies against war and strikes organized by women played significant roles in the evolution of this day.
On the historic 100th observance of International Women's Day, I can't help but think that recent events in Wisconsin should be included in any reflections on the significance of this day. Wisconsin's assault on collective bargaining rights hits close to home for women, as the majority of teachers in the US are female (over 80% at the elementary and middle school levels) and union membership does much to improve the quality of life of women workers.
It's no small point that a group of politicians chose to eliminate something that benefits working women. It's the presence of females in the workforce that moves our nation forward. Now that women outstrip men in college attendance, single women without children who are younger than 30 are actually earning more than men because of their educational background. With the recession resulting in more men than women being laid off, the workforce is now fully half female.
Make it harder for women to enter the workforce and women take a step backward. All the gains we've made and all the legislation we've pushed for to end sexual harassment, close the wage gender gap, make the workplace more flexible for working mothers -- all that is put at risk when we don't actively participate in the democratic process as voters and as vocal constituents.
Yes, it's important to celebrate the history of global change in the lives of women on this day. But it's equally important to reflect on what's happening in the here and now -- the assaults on existing programs and benefits and the ways in which we might take action to oppose such assaults.
The labor movement gained momentum and moved forward because of loss -- because of the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Must we have another tragedy in Wisconsin and elsewhere -- a tragedy not of women's lives prematurely ended but of rights and dignity unjustly torn from us -- before we stand up and fight back to regain what we've lost?