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Why do we celebrate Womens Day on March 8?

Spoiler alert: Thereís more to it than flowers, flowery language, and sugary food
BY Uma Asher |   07-03-2016

It's that time of the year when we’re bombarded with discounts for women consumers, ads urging people to buy gifts for women, public service messages to respect women, listicles of women achievers, and articles about the assorted wonderful qualities of women. So is that what International Women's Day is really about - a day to give women flowers and praise? Why just one day? Why March 8? Women's Day is just another commercial holiday invented by Hallmark Cards, right? Well, not really.

Acacia dealbata (mimosa flowers)

Above: It's mimosa season in Italy, and women there traditionally get these fragrant flowers in celebration of Women's Day on March 8 (photo by JJ Harrison, used under CC license)


Women’s work

International Women’s Day is rooted in the fact that women have always been an economic force, as much as men, but haven’t always been treated equally.

Manufacturing has existed since ancient times, but in the 18th and 19th centuries, scientific and technological developments made the mass production of goods possible. This transformed the character of manufacturing, beginning with Western Europe and the US. The demand for labour and raw materials shot up. Poor men and women came from villages to industrial centres such as London, Paris and New York, and worked in factories where conditions were sweatshop-like. There were no regulations to guarantee sick leave, eight-hour work days, weekends off, accident insurance, minimum wages, and pensions.

A huge proportion of factory workers were women, and they were usually paid less than men for the same work. Their living conditions were appalling. If you’ve watched the famous musical Les Misérables, the character Fantine (played in the video linked here by Anne Hathaway) is a good indication of what 19th-century working-class women's lives were like.

According to one story, possibly apocryphal, garment workers in New York City got together on March 8, 1857, to demand a 10-hour work day (less inhumane than a 15-hour one) and equal rights for women. The police broke up the protest. Half a century later, on March 8, 1908, it was clear that  nothing had changed.

In 1910, a German political leader, Clara Zetkin, proposed that March 8 be observed as International Women's Day, to commemorate the American women's demonstrations and to support women workers everywhere. European governments at the time, including Zetkin's own, regarded her as a threat and a troublemaker.

In 1911, nearly 150 workers died in a fire at a factory in New York City. Some were burned alive, and others died jumping from the ninth floor in a desperate effort to escape.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, New York City   Grave of worker who died in Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, New York City

Above left: Fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, New York, in March 1911. Above right: Gravestone of one of the 146 workers who died (photo by Aparver, via Wikimedia Commons)

Addressing a well-to-do audience after the disaster, a poor factory worker named Rose Schneiderman said, “This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city... The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred... you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters... But every time the workers… protest against conditions which are unbearable, the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us.”
 

Have things changed?

They’ve changed in the sense that they are now far more likely to happen in different parts of the world. In 2013, more than 1,000 workers died when part of an industrial building in Bangladesh collapsed, because it was shoddily built, in violation of several laws. The factories in that building supplied clothes sold by famous fashion brands in malls around the world. More than half the victims were women.

Savar Building collapse, Rana Plaza, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Above: The Rana Plaza building, which contained several factories that supplied clothes to leading global fashion brands, collapsed in April 2013, killing over 1,000. More than half the victims were women (photo by rijans, via Wikimedia Commons)

Also, women still earn less than men for the same work, in many developed countries and emerging economies.

 

So should we celebrate Women's Day at all?
 
Well, who doesn't love presents, treats, and appreciation? Just so long as the celebration does not include gifts manufactured in inhumane conditions.
 
In a speech in 1912, Schneiderman said women have the right to not just exist, but also live -  “the right to... the sun and music and art... The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.” That inspired this song, which is commonly sung in celebration of Women's Day

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