On March 8, 1917 — according to the Gregorian calendar used in the West — women textile workers in Petrograd, Russia, frustrated by miserable living conditions and disgust with the ruling political order, walked out on strike. By the end of the day, nearly 100,000 women had left the factories, issuing demands from the street for "bread and peace" and an end to the Czar's regime.
Anger with what is boiled over and, in a time-honoured tradition, workers joined together to demand more: what could be. With their frustration, those women set in motion a year of revolution that would end in the creation of the world's first workers' state. Auspiciously enough, it happened on what was already a nearly decade-old holiday: International Women's Day (IWD.)
The radical roots of the holiday are rarely given the attention they warrant in modern mainstream feminist discourse, dedicated as that space so often is to calls to "lean in" and populate corporate boardrooms, to empower ourselves by buying luxury goods and to accept superficial nods to equality in lieu of a serious restructuring of social relations.
In stark contrast to the particular brand of peppy, individualized feminism that has been dominant for decades and is only recently beginning to show cracks, IWD was from its inception about recognizing radical politics led by women, and especially labour politics. It was, after all, first recognized by the Socialist Party of America in 1909 as a commemoration of the Ladies' Garment Strike in New York.
Women have been integral to militant labour activism — which has, in turn, been integral to advancing social changes that benefit everyone — at every point in history. Though women have long been denied our place in history writ large, and labour history is no exception, there's no question we have been there.
The documentary Harlan County, USA is an example of women's crucial role in labour history. It chronicles a drawn-out struggle Kentucky coal workers waged against Duke Power Company in 1973; though most of the workers are men, women were just as involved in the strike, participating in the picket lines and at least as fiercely militant as the men featured in the film.
Thankfully, more women are rediscovering, and laying claim to, this history.
One particularly memorable clip features a meeting where mine workers and women strategize about how to move forward. Company hires show up at the picket lines brandishing guns, and a union member's house has been shot up during the night. During the meeting, an older woman addresses the group and says her biggest concern is not the gun thugs, as the workers call them, but winning the strike and avoiding a return to the desperate conditions the region endured in the 1930s: "If I get shot," she says, "they can't shoot the union out of me."
This is the solidarity and bravery IWD was inaugurated to celebrate, and it's a history that only becomes more relevant with every passing day. Thankfully, more women are rediscovering, and laying claim to, this history.
From the professional classes of downwardly mobile teachers and precariously employed university instructors to minimum-wage workers who have agitated across the United States and Canada for a level of pay they can actually live on, the industries and sectors seeing the most militant job actions today are heavily populated by women. This is the legacy of IWD, and it's one that's been here all along.
Remembering this history and recognizing it in the making will do far more to help women than wearing purple (for liberation?) or attending a seminar about "SheEOs" (yes, there is a movement for women to become CEOs crafted around a too-cute pun; no, it will not help the vast majority of women who work for other people, and can't innovate a tech start-up.)
West Virginia teachers and other school employees walked off the job on February 22, ending the strike only this week. Their pay ranked near the bottom of the barrel, their shoddy state health insurance was eating up more and more of that meagre pay, and Republican lawmakers were disinclined to do anything. West Virginia does not allow public employees to formally unionize, bargain contracts collectively, or strike.
In spite of these obvious limitations, the state's teachers were organized enough that they not only managed to mount a strike in the first place, but closed down schools in all 55 counties in the state, and kept it up after their union's leadership was ready to recommend a deal.
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Throughout all of that, many on the picket lines and crowding the state legislature in picturesque candlelit protest have donned red bandanas, invoking the memory of mine workers who took up arms in rebellion against exploitative coal companies and connecting their struggles.
Fighting alongside one another to win material improvements in our living and working conditions is the only way we can ensure the gains one person wins are shared by all of us and don't come at another's expense. Recognize IWD by remembering the hard battles women have fought and won, and finding a way to continue the struggle.
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