July 4, 2020

The true, radical nature of International Women’s Day

Submitted by Alex Mathews, senior economics and history major with minors in political science and philosophy

International Women’s Day has fallen victim to the American tradition of co-opting radical movements to reduce their revolutionary content and abuse their power for corporate gain.

One only has to perform an internet search for ‘IWD apparel’ to find endless items of overpriced clothing, most likely produced using sweatshops full of women. While we tout new figures such as majority of defense firms being led by women or a record number of Fortune 500 companies being led by women, we ignore the deeply anti-corporate sentiment that was the genesis of IWD.

The holiday was first celebrated in 1909, organized by the Socialist Party of America. It was spurred on by mass protests of women in New York City against sweatshop conditions with low pay and long hours.

The movement quickly spread across the industrialized world, being taken up by labor groups across Europe, including those in Russia who would play a significant role in the upcoming revolution. IWD remained a staple holiday of labor groups and ‘socialist’ nations; it was not taken up by the UN as an official international holiday until decades later.

Early figures in the movement include Emma Goldman, a Lithuanian-American anarchist who advocated direct action against capitalism, Theresa Malkiel, a Russian-American socialist who first organized the holiday and spent her career organizing strikes for working women’s rights, and Ida. B. Wells, an African-American civil rights leader who helped found the NAACP, among numerous others.

This was a movement of working women against corporate subjugation, not some slogan to be plastered on a cheap shirt from Bangladesh. As I said, other revolutionary movements have received the same treatment.

Most prominently, Martin Luther King as a figure has at this point largely been forgotten as the labor radical that he was. A quote from him less than a year before he was murdered: “We must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice, which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two‐thirds water?”

Today, we remember MLK in much vaguer terms, as some symbol of the civil rights movement. We’ve lost touch with the real horrors he and others faced on the ground, as well as the fundamentally leftist principles that motivated his movement.

We are given tweets of support for MLK day by the FBI (who attempted numerous times to get MLK to commit suicide) and merchandise from companies who employ black women at lower rates and wages than white men.

MLK has effectively become a way of pacifying Americans into accepting the idea that some idea of progress was achieved for civil rights, so we should be grateful and stop complaining about the current situation.

Don’t believe me? Ask your family; see how many of them think racism ended because Obama got elected. IWD is being appropriated in exactly the same way. Just as I fear that MLK Day here at Capital fails to capture the anti-capitalist sentiments that supported the Civil Rights movement, I fear that International Women’s Week will fail to capture the holiday’s labor spirit.

Just as Pride, born out of the Stonewall riots against police brutality, is now ‘celebrated’ by police departments across the country, I fear that IWD will be ‘celebrated’ by those who continue to do damage to working women and merely want to use the holiday to conceal their evils.

I fear that the holiday is being used to persuade women to stop their struggle for working equality and instead be ‘grateful’ for how far they’ve come. If this concerns you in the least, call your own position in society and beliefs into question.

No amount of Facebook posts or catchy slogans on your hoodies will make that kind of difference.

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