international-womens-day
women_workers_strike

Women’s Worker’s Strike in 1912.

International Women’s Day is one of the few celebrations observed in Canada that is the product of dissident or reform movements. Its origins go back to 1909 when the American Socialist Party held an event honouring the 1908 garment worker’s strike in New York, where women protested against gruelling working conditions in the city’s factories. The following year there was a women’s conference in Copenhagen and from a motion by two German socialist women, International Women’s Day was declared.

international-womens-day

A German poster advertises International Women’s Day, 1914

There was no firm date established for International Women’s Day, but the next year on March 18, over a million women marched in a half dozen European countries for the right to vote and hold public office. They demanded the right to work and vocational training and an end to job discrimination based on gender. Slowly the idea spread. In Russia it was celebrated on the last day of February in the old calendar, which is March 8 in the “western” one. On that day, an International Women’s Day demonstration led to a bread riot which led to the abdication of the Czar and the beginning of the February Revolution. Since then, March 8 has been celebrated as International Women’s Day.

Other events have been associated with International Women’s Day like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. On March 25, 1911, a brutal fire swept through a New York City sweatshop where 146 workers, mainly Jewish and Italian immigrant women, died trapped in the unsafe factory.

international-womens-day-poster

This 1932 Soviet poster advises a rebellion against the slavery of women.

Another event often connected with International Women’s Day is the Lawrence, Massachusetts textile workers strike of 1912, better known as the Bread and Roses Strike. Lawrence was a centre of the textile industry and most of the workers were women. It was a city of immigrants with the largest per capita immigrant population in the world. In Lawrence, one of the main groups was Canadian women from Quebec, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island who had gone south to find work. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organized a thousand or so of the workers to fight against wage cuts. After two months of rallying, the workers won.

There was a great deal of solidarity with the workers, especially in radical circles in New York and other cities. A socialist reporter, James Oppenheim, wrote a poem called “Bread and Roses” that was a stirring defence of the rights of working women and the need for both better material conditions and a better life in every sense. While it was actually published a year before the textile strike, it was claimed that the phrase “Bread and Roses” was seen on a sign carried by one of the women strikers in Lawrence. Whatever the provenance, the Lawrence Strike became the Bread and Roses Strike in labour folklore, and the poem set to music became the anthem of International Women’s Day.

Bread and Roses

As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: Bread and Roses! Bread and Roses!

As we go marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.

As we go marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too.

As we go marching, marching, we bring the greater days,
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses, bread and roses.

Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; bread and roses, bread and roses.

Both the celebration and the song have been part of the Canadian women’s socialist and labour movement since the early twenties. However, it was in the mid-seventies that the revived women’s movement began to celebrate International Women’s Day and the song became an anthem. Enjoy a magnificent rendition by Queen Cee Robinson, a Hamilton based R&B and soul singer.

Another version is a short clip of “Bread and Roses” sung in the occupation of a government office by women opposing cuts to government programs in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The tuning is questionable but the spirit is very much in the tradition of the song and International Women’s Day. One hundred years after the song became an anthem and International Women’s Day became the worldwide event it is today, we can still sing, “Hearts starve as well as bodies; bread and roses, bread and roses.”

Visit Canada.gov for more on the status of women and The Canadian Encyclopedia for more on Women’s Movements and Women in the Labour Force.

Leave a Reply

About Gary Cristall

Gary Cristall was the co-founder of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival in 1978; from 1994 he spent six years at Canada Council. Since 2000 he has worked as an artist's manager and consultant and teacher of arts administration at Capilano University. He is researching and writing a history of folk music in English Canada. Visit Gary at his website and learn more about his book on the history of folk music in Canada. Photo credit: Brian Nation

Category

History, Music

Tags

, , , , , ,