Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Day to Inspire

First published in the Oxford Journal newspaper on Wednesday, March 5, 2014, by Sara Jewell Mattinson.

Why do we celebrate International Women’s Day?
Because women can do anything they want – play any sport, work any job, wear any style of clothing, run for any office – but too often, they still have to fight to be taken seriously.  
International Women’s Day (IWD) has been observed since the early 1900’s but its genesis is found fifty years earlier in the plight of garment workers who were mostly women, some as young as teenagers.
On March 8, 1857, women working in clothing and textile factories in New York City staged a protest against inhumane working conditions and low wages. The police aggressively ended the protest. Two years later, these same women formed their first labour union to try and gain some basic workplace rights.
The fight was just beginning.
On March 8, 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter work hours, better pay, the right to vote and an end to child labour. From this event came the slogan “Bread and Roses”; the bread symbolized economic security while the roses represented a better quality of life. 
Yet as so often is the case, it took a tragedy to truly open the world’s eyes to the dangerous working conditions endured by garment workers. In March, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in Manhattan caught fire. 146 people – 123 of them women ranging in age from 14 to 43 – perished from the fire, from smoke inhalation or from jumping from the 10-storey building. You see, the owners had locked and blocked doorways and staircases, a common practice to prevent unauthorized breaks. The fire led to legislation that improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the garment workers’ union.
The movement wasn’t just happening in the United States, however. Across the industrialized world, women were demanding “bread and roses” and began celebrating Women’s Day on the 28th of February. In 1910, the idea of a worldwide day for women was approved at the second International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen. In Russia, women took up the cause for workers’ rights in 1913, at the start of World War One. Their four-day “bread and peace” strike in 1917 eventually resulted in the government granting Russian women the right to vote. 
Women’s labour rights are tied to the right to vote. Whoever votes makes the rules. Whoever votes has control – over workers, over wages, over women. While Australia granted women the right to vote in 1902, Canada, Britain, Germany and the US got around to it between 1916 and 1920. Around the world, women gaining the right to vote has happened slowly but surely: South Africa, 1930; France, 1944; Mexico, China and Pakistan, 1947; Lebanon in 1952 and Egypt in 1956; Afghanistan, 1963 and Iraq in 1980. Today, only Saudi Arabia continues to deny women voting rights. 
International Women’s Day is meant to be a celebration. It’s a chance for young women fortunate to have grown up in a time and in a country where women can vote and be astronauts and run for office to remember the roots of IWD, to remember the protests and strikes, and the deaths, that made the vast opportunities of today possible. Tragedies continue to occur to women of all ages in alarming numbers, tragedies that are tied indelibly to gender, but we also need to celebrate progress and achievement. We need to celebrate the trailblazers and the rabble-rousers, the role models and mentors.
Why do we celebrate International Women’s Day? 
Because of Canada’s 2014 Women’s Olympic Hockey team. 
And because some people still think men’s hockey is a better game. 

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