Sunday, March 8, 2009
Happy International Women's Day
I first heard of International Women's Day (IWD) nearly 20 years ago while travelling in Europe. On March 8, an Italian inn keeper asked me if I knew about the significance of that particular day. Of course being an American, I had no idea of what he was talking about. He began explaining to me that it was a day to pay respect to women and their rights as equals. He added disdainfully that it is not celebrated in the United States because it is an awful capitalist country that allows their women workers to be burned alive in factories. And he ended grumbling a happy International Women’s Day to me.
Most likely he was referring to the New York 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist building fire that indeed did end in the deaths of 140 garment workers, most of whom were European immigrant women. Or maybe the inn keeper meant any of the other historical events documenting the labor abuses of women in the U.S.
The irony of an American being scolded on democratic values did not end there. Even though the U.S. does not officially have IWD, it began here. It originated in the United States in part by the socialists' campaign for equality for women. In 1903, women trade unionists and professional women campaigned for women's voting rights. On February 28, 1907, women socialists organized huge demonstrations and meetings all over the country to demand political rights for working women. In particular, women workers from New York demonstrated against poverty, exploitation and the right to vote. IWD grew from the struggles of that year.
Awareness of women’s labor abuses grew in November 1909, when 20,000 plus factory employed seamstresses (waist makers) walked out to protest falling wages, the 56-69 hour work week, and the strict discipline of the industry’s subcontractor system. This strike involved more unionized women than ever before and triggered mass support among other workers.
By 1910, it was decided at the second International Conference of Socialist Working Women meeting in Copenhagen (with representatives from 17 countries) that they would officially organize an annual International Women’s Day. The rest is history.
Since the unpleasant but educational encounter in Italy, I’ve had the pleasure of celebrating IWD in Viet Nam, known as Ngày Phụ Nữ (NPN). Some have compared NPN to the States’ Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day rolled into one. Everyone is scrambling to get flowers for their female employees, family members and lovers. Women have the entire day off or they leave work early to attend the NPN celebrations held around town. I quite enjoyed this special day.
But, like I tell all my friends, Internatinal Women’s Day should be everyday. Not too late to celebrate it a day late. Go out and get flowers ASAP. Yes, women can give the women in their lives goodies too. I do it all the time.