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The uses and abuses of International Women’s Day in Grand Rapids: From Bread and Roses to Corporate sponsorships

March 7, 2023

On Wednesday, March 8th, people 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.

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!” In other words, the history of International Women’s Day is rooted in the working class struggle, not in some nebulous notion of gender equality. 

Unfortunately, International Women’s Day is often celebrated or acknowledged by organizations and entities that are NOT rooted in the same history and the same struggle that IWD was founded on. For instance, MLive posted an article on Tuesday about a Wednesday march and rally to commemorate International Women’s Day.

The MLive piece says that the nonprofit group SowHope is hosting the rally and march for International Women’s Day. SowHope’s approach to dealing with women’s issues, appears to be rooted in the usual non-profit world framework, which is to offer support without challenging systems of power and oppression, based on their history.

What is worse is that the only two speakers that have been identified for the rally are GVSU’s President Philomena Mantella and WGVU Public Radio personality Shelley Irwin. If SowHope was interested in honoring the history of International Women’s Day, they would be inviting women who are fighting economic, social and political justice, such as workers being exploited or women led movements, like Movimiento Cosecha GR or women who are part of labor unions fighting against exploitation. 

Instead, we can see from the event, which has its own Facebook page, there are opportunities for corporate sponsorship. Corporate sponsorships are the exact opposite of what International Women’s Day has historically been all about. Then again, this is just another manifestation of West MI Nice!

As an alternative, there is an event at the corner of Fulton and Division for International Women’s Day, which is being hosted by the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, which also has their own Facebook event page.

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