Women Hold Up Half the Sky

This past Tuesday went unnoticed by most of Harvard, no break in classes, nothing unusual. Had it been Columbus Day, or Saint Patrick's Day, or the fourth of July, Harvard would have taken notice. So why was this day different from all other days? It was International Working Women's Day, a holiday forgotten or unheard of by most people at Harvard. Did anyone know? Did anyone care? Who understands what it stands for? Every child in America learns what Columbus Day stands for...

International Women's Day originated in the United States on March 8, 1908, when thousands of women garment and textile workers participated in a march in New York City, organized by a group of socialist women to demand an end to sweatshop conditions, child labor, and for the right to vote. The action of these women was an inspiration to people all over the world, demonstrating the power of women joined in struggle for their rights. Around 1910, at the International Conference of Women Socialists, Clara Zetkin, German socialist leader, introduced a resolution to set aside March 8 as International Working Women's Day. The day was founded to commemorate the past struggles of working women for their rights, to rally women throughout the world in a fight for the right of women to work in tolerable conditions, and to mobilize women and men to fight for the special demands of women.

The spirit of International Women's Day 1977 directs men and women to look at some of the historic struggles of women who fought to secure basic rights:

In 1828, 300 to 400 women and girl cotton-mill operatives staged a walkout in Dover, New Hampshire, to protest wage reductions. This was one of the first instances of organized labor activity in America, representing the growing militancy of women workers.

Sarah Bagley organized the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association in 1844. The association, 600 members strong within the first year, fought for a ten-hour day and forced the first governmental investigation into labor conditions in American history.


On November 22, 1909, Clara Lemlich called for a resolution to strike at a mass meeting of garment workers in New York City. Thirty-thousand unorganized workers answered the call. The uprising of the women shirtwaist makers led to the successful signing of full union contracts for 312 shops in New York. The strike lasted 13 weeks despite police beatings and mass arrests.

In 1937, despite the over 50 per cent unemployment rate among black workers during the Depression, 400 black women in the Richmond tobacco industry went on strike against their $3-a-week wages and miserable working conditions. Within 48 hours the strikers obtained wage increases, a 40-hour week and union recognition. The women had been considered unorganizable before they walked out.

The California Homemakers Association is the first union to win collective bargaining right for domestic workers. In 1973, the union of primarily black women organized over 2500 workers in Sacramento County.

The Chicana women workers at the Farah pants factory in Texas won a two-year strike in 1974, to get recognition of the right to organize. While the women strikers had aid from support committees and a national boycott, it was again the tenacity and determination of these women workers which made victory possible.

Leafing through the hefty tomes of history, one finds few references to these women and their struggles. Traditional scholarship has chosen not to document the occurrences of female activism throughout history. Most discussions of women's history equate women's struggles for equality with the suffrage movement which lasted from the Seneca Falls Conference of 1848 until the ratification of the 1920 constitutional amendment giving women the vote. This movement of predominantly white, middle and upper class reformers in the only movement of women given any credence in history books. But what of the effect of the suffragette movement on black women, who could not vote, not only because they were women, but because they were black? What of the Chinese women working as cheap imported labor (under the whip) at railroad sites at that time? How many working class women could exercise the new right of women to vote? These questions are never brought out in history books. As Dolores Barranco Schmidt and Earl Robert Schmidt point out in their essay on "The Invisible Women":

[Historians] manage to discuss the reform of insane asylums in the first half of the 19th century without mentioning Dorothea Dix, muckraking without mentioning Ida Tarbell, and the Montgomery bus boycott without mentioning Rosa Parks.

Historians have indeed written women out of history.

The only women recognized, with few exceptions, are those who have left written records of their lives. These women are atypical, as they have achieved a high level of literacy, possessed leisure time, believed that their lives were worth recording, and grew up in families that valued their writings enough to preserve them. This handful of women, almost exclusively white and middle or upper class, were acknowledged for achieving male-defined successes; these women achieved status as political leaders, doctors, and queens.

At best, these women faced only sexual oppression. There are women, however, who are confronted not only with sexual oppression but also with national and class oppression. The thoughts and life histories of these women--Third World and working class women--have rarely been recorded. First of all, these women, who have been denied education, are often not literate enough to write. Secondly, it is these women who do and have provided a major part of the wage and slave labor upon which the American economy is based. Leisure time is unknown to those who labor all day and then come home to take care of their husband and children. Thirdly, attitudes of sexual, national and class superiority on the part of many scholars have prevented them from seeing the study of these women as a worthwhile area of scholarship.

Women act upon their social, political and economic environment according to specific conditions such as class and national origin. Thus, to treat women as a monolithic entity without differentiating the experiences of women as to their specific histories, economic and national conditions, is untenable. Yet this is exactly what many scholars who have bothered to include women in their plan of study have done. They have only used existing records of the thought and lives of women, and have not bothered to research other aspects of womanhood. Therefore, Women's Studies--the study of history, culture and society from a perspective that recognizes the contributions and perceptions of women as the starting point of studies of such topics as the family and labor--is virtually an unexplored field. Little has been done to uncover the invisible lives of women, their role in the family, economy and state, the impact of different historical changes on women, and the impact of women on social movements.

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