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Marching ahead

Manjima Bhattacharjya traces the history of March 8, International Women’s Day, back to the 1857 agitation for dignity and equality in the workplace, a battle not yet won

The winds of March always bring an air of festivity. March 8, International Women’s Day, is around the corner and women’s groups busy themselves in organising seminars, celebrations, talks, events, little rallies on street corners or community squares to bring the message to the masses while corporations and marketing professionals strategise around how best to capitalise and make even more profits on this ‘special’ day by giving special discounts to women in their relatively new avatar as consumers.

For me though, March 8 – lost as it is in the haze of commerce and UN/ NGO-isation -- is about remembering the struggles that women’s movements around the world have been through and continue to go through. Although March 8 isn’t a holiday – except in some of the former states of the USSR where it had a special significance given the socialist roots of the day’s commemoration, the month of March, and that day in particular, holds significance for various reasons.

The story goes that it was as early as March 8, 1857 that women workers in garment and textile factories in New York (now the ‘fashion district’) rose up in protest of low wages and abysmal working conditions. Although police violently dispersed the protest, this laid the seeds of a labour movement in the district and these women went on to form a labour union around the same time two years later. In 1908, urban legend has it that 15,000 (some say 30,000) angry and militant women workers walked the streets of New York The following years saw more protests held on that day by women workers and trade unions around the world – not only for changes in deplorable working conditions, but for suffrage or the right to vote, against poverty, for peace, for an end to the First World War, the ‘Bread and Roses’ campaign of 1911.

In March 1911 though, even before the ground had cooled from the millions who came out to rally on the streets, tragedy struck. A fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City killed 140 women workers, most of whom were Italian and Jewish immigrants, testifying to the dangerous conditions that people worked in and compelling US authorities to take up labour legislation as a serious issue. In 1917 it is said that it was the protest by working women on March 8 that set off the Russian Revolution. The day was first officially declared international women’s day after a proposal by Clara Zetkin, one of the leaders of the German Socialist Democratic Party at a global conference of working women in 1910 that this day be used to press for women’s demands globally. ‘March 8’ then took on a life of its own and snowballed over the years, gathering urban legends and gaining global recognition, and by 1975 –the International Year of Women as declared by the United Nations – it had become truly ‘official’.

Today of course March 8 has come quite a long way from its militant, socialist origins. The de-politicisation began fairly early on. As early as the 1970s posters for women’s day had lost their militant angry character and transmuted into essentialist tributes to Mother Nature. Take a look at these archived Soviet posters (from The first, from 1932, commemorates “the day of the rebellion of working women from kitchen slavery” while the second poster from later years celebrates the ‘essence of women -- beauty and motherhood.

Despite these changes, March 8 still brings to mind the two major things it organically represents – one is about being on the streets, in protest and in remembrance of those who protested so that we could enjoy so many freedoms that they never had. And the other is the question of women and work -- what it has meant for women to work in paid employment, what has changed and what remains unchanged.

Women and work has been not only one of the key areas that women’s rights struggles have been waged in, it is also an area that has seen the maximum success. First emerging into the workforce en masse during the world wars, there was then no looking back.

(World War II posters from Northwestern University Archives)

There is no doubt that women today are active participants in the world’s workforce and there is little debate on basic issues like women’s right to work anymore, at least in the West.

Instead women’s participation in the workforce has been seen to be a critical marker of ‘equality’, spurring a host of jokes and cartoons over time about how this has led to curious changes in gender relations and traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity.

‘Equality’ in the workplace, however, remains dubious – whether it is in pay, gender-sensitive workplaces, attitude towards women, maternity benefits and so on. These are still live debates, some of which are only moving towards resolution, even in countries like the USA. It is ironic that at the end of January this year, after assuming office, the first bill President Barack Obama signed was the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, named after Lily Ledbetter, an employee of the Goodyear Tyre company who sued for discrimination in pay. While signing the bill, Obama said: “It is fitting that with the very first bill I sign … we are upholding one of this nation's first principles: that we are all created equal…”

Outside the West, along with women’s education, women and work have indeed been a crucial area of women’s advancement, ahead of even civil and political rights. For example, women in Kuwait may not have had the right to vote till very recently but they have been working outside the home in strong positions in the bureaucracy, academia and professional spheres for over a decade now. From the images that surround us today, even in India – from women in business suits or crisp sarees at the forefront of media and corporate houses to women at petrol pumps, as auto drivers or police officers – it would seem that while in the early-1900s women working in the public domain was a relatively new phenomenon, today things are dramatically different. Or are they?

A rather shocking report last year in the Economic Times1 noted that ‘only 13% of Indian women work’. (By this, they are of course referring to paid work, not the hundreds of hours of unpaid domestic labour – still not considered ‘work’ -- that women put in.) Of this, the whopping majority (90%) are from rural backgrounds and lower income groups and work in the unorganised sector in unsafe, underpaid and uncertain working conditions. Going completely against the popular perception of the new young urban educated Indian women, the survey finds that only 13% women in urban households with annual income between Rs 2-5 lakhs work while in households where annual income is more than Rs 5 lakh, this drops to only 9%. In rural households with similar income range, only 4.9% women work. These are dismal figures and point to some serious questions: what prevents women in higher income households from entering the workforce? Are these women, assuming many of them are reasonably educated given their economic background, outside the workforce out of choice? Is it the absence of childcare systems? Is it family taboos? Is it the burden of other domestic responsibilities that has been left to them? Do these women without earning power have the freedom and choices that accrue with earning power? Do they have control over their lives?

Every minute of every day of every month of every year, women around the world are working away – in fields, in offices, in homes, caring for families, children, elderly, on construction sites, factory sheds, call centres, media houses, professional fields – often taking on multiple burdens. A Cambridge University study last year2 reported after a survey of 30,000 people in the UK that even though men might spend longer time in the office, women spend much more time working if one includes domestic labour. The study calculates that “the average man in full-time employment works about 55 hours a week… By contrast, the average working week for a woman in full-time employment in the European Union is 68 hours. For British women, that comprises 40 hours in the office, 3.3 hours commuting and 23 hours a week spent doing domestic work. But even women who work part-time put in longer hours overall than men in full-time work, because they do so many household chores. Women with part-time jobs work on average 57 hours a week. That is made up of 21.3 hours in paid work, 2.4 hours commuting and 32.7 hours of domestic work."

Working women’s issues cover a new range today: the working space, safety for women in workplace, flexible work hours, gendered work policies, day care, crèches and other systems that recognise the special needs that women do indeed have. Women often can’t afford to stay late and put in the hours or be part of office beer groups when they have domestic and childrearing responsibilities that they have to return to, a vicious cycle that prevents them often from breaking into top management. These are issues that are still unresolved and I do not see women in the corporate world, or in any working space really, comfortable with discussing these questions yet. It is seen to be a weakness to even think that your needs might be different because you are a woman/ have children/ have elderly parents/ handicapped dependents and so on for whom you are responsible. There have been gains, but so much still remains.

Over the last ten years I have been to various March 8 celebrations, waved many flags and danced in community nukkads to the sound of dholaks and choruses of feminist songs, yelled azaadi slogans till my throat was hoarse, even walked with women of all hues and hundreds of men pushing strolleys and carrying children in the streets of Europe. This year too I hope to be somewhere, this time with my daughter in tow, in some impassioned crowd rallying to remind us of what we’ve gained and what remains, and that there is still work to do. (If you’re in Delhi on March 8, be there at Central Park, Connaught Place, for an afternoon rally that hopes to bring together hundreds of women, men and children. In Bangalore, go for a rousing Take Back the Night march from 6 pm to 11 pm, coming together at 9 pm at the Majestic.) Between Pink Chaddis and Facebook groups and new ways of protest, there is still so much to protest about.

Even as I watch the day being shorn of its politics, commercialised, hijacked, used, abused, co-opted (but still being celebrated), every March 8 is a time for mixed feelings and hearing Joan Baez in my head sing... “And we’re still marching in the streets with little victories and big defeats. But there is joy and there is hope and there’s a place for you.”

InfoChange News & Features, March 2009