This Friday, March 8, marks International Women’s Day, an opportunity to celebrate women around the world. However, the history behind International Women’s Day and what it represents for the struggles of working women is often absent from mainstream dialogue.
International Women’s Day originated in New York on March 8, 1857, when female garment workers organized for better working conditions and equal rights. Half a century later, women marched again on the same day in New York in 1908 to demand the vote and an end to sweatshops and child labor.
Popular feminist discourse today tends to herald the accomplishments of powerful women rising through the ranks. For example, much excitement followed the historic number of women elected to the U.S. Senate in the 2012 election.
Yet, as noted in Sarah Jaffe’s article “Trickle-Down Feminism” for Dissent magazine, what tends to be missing in discussions on how far women have come is the recognition that there are deep rifts in lived experience that separate women in positions of prominence from the ongoing struggles of many average working women.
Most women continue to face unequal pay and entrenched obstacles to advancement. Jaffe writes, “While we debate the travails of some of the world’s most privileged women, most women are up against the wall.”
By ignoring intersections between gender and class struggle, we also tend to celebrate affluent and visible female leaders as role models for female empowerment. However, there are strong women in our communities who have fought for the rights of women in the workplace that also deserve to be honored and have their struggles acknowledged.
In 1969, UNC dining hall workers Mary Smith and Elizabeth Brooks led other workers in a strike for better wages and working conditions. After months of striking, then-North Carolina Gov. Robert Scott gave in to the workers’ demand for a wage increase.
In February 1991, majority black and female UNC housekeepers organized to raise issues of racial discrimination in the workplace and unequal pay.
Barbara Prear, still a UNC housekeeper today, was a leader in the struggle for better conditions for housekeepers in the 1990s. Prear says, “A lot of times people say they are empowering women, but they don’t talk about empowering working women and poor women and really trying to change their conditions.”
Prear says that some of the problems she and others fought to change in housekeeping at UNC years ago are still there today.
“If you really want to empower women and workers you can’t simply talk about it once a year; you have to develop a real process for change. For many in our community, it may have to be lifetime work.”
When we discuss female advancement, we cannot solely celebrate major milestones. We must also find a way to honor the struggles that continue to exist for working-class women.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.