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Which side of History are you on: International Women’s Day in Grand Rapids

March 7, 2016

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On Tuesday, March 8, women and men around the world will celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD). However, there is a growing tendency to ignore the origins of IWD and merely use the day or Women’s History Month as a marketing opportunity or to acknowledge the accomplishments of women, even if they conflict with the spirit of International Women’s Day or simply promote a vague notion of identity politics.

International Women’s Day evolved out of a growing effort amongst women’s and working class groups to fight for more equality for women at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.

In 1908, 15,000 women marched in New York City demanding shorter work hours, better wages and the right to vote. In 1909, the Socialist Party of America designated February 28 as the first National Women’s Day, which was to be celebrated on the last Sunday of every February.triangle

In 1910, at the Second International Conference for Working Women, there was a proposal to have an international women’s day, where women around the world would press for their demands on the same day. The proposal was not adopted until the following year and International Women’s Day (IWD) was celebrated in several countries around the world. However, something happened just one week later that would galvanize this new international movement.

On March 25, a fire began at the Triangle factory in New York City. It was common practice for factory owners to lock the workers inside until the work day ended and because of that practice 140 women, most Jewish and Italian immigrants, burned to death in that fire. The international women’s movement, labor and socialist movements mobilized around the world to mourn these women and to organize for worker and women’s rights. 

For years after the first, the Triangle factory fire became the focus of International Women’s Day and gave birth to the Bread and Roses Campaign. The Bread and Roses Campaign was begun by workers (mostly women) who went on strike at a textile factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts. This strike was organized by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) with the slogan, “We want Bread, but we want Roses too!” 

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Juxtapose this radical working class women’s history with an event being hosted by the Grand Rapids Business Journal on International Women’s Day. The Business Journal will be recognizing the 50 Most Influential Women in West Michigan at their event, which will be held at the J.W. Marriott in downtown Grand Rapids. The irony is that the women who change the sheets at the JW Marriott and clean the rooms at the DeVos-owned hotel have more in common with the women who died during the Triangle Factory fire or the women behind the Bread and Roses campaign than the women being recognized for their “influence” at the Business Journal event. Many of the women being recognized at the Business Journal event are fundamentally modern day versions of the factory owners that the working class women organized against.

It is a strange world we live in where a day that is rooted in the radical politics of working class women is co-opted in order to honor mostly business women. Of course, if you don’t want to attend such a corporate event, there is always the International Women’s Day Celebration and Pub Crawl

Such irony begs the question, which side of History are you on?

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