Nandita Haksar | 9 MARCH, 2015

International Womens Day: The Fight for Bread and Roses

“Yes, it is bread we fight for—but we fight for roses, too!”


NEW DELHI: Rose (name changed) has been working in Delhi’s posh restaurants for more than ten years. She had thought she would work hard and save enough to ensure herself a comfortable life back in her village. She had found a job in a restaurant in a posh shopping mall in south Delhi. She was in the restaurant by eleven in the morning and worked till two; then she had a break for four hours but she could not afford to take an auto rickshaw back home. She wandered around the shopping mall window shopping looking with envy at the perfectly groomed models posing in branded clothes which she dreamed of buying one day. Rose returned to work and the employer provided transport for her return at around two in the morning.

Her home was a small rented room where she had a stove. She cooked herself a meal of boiled rice and made a hot chutney and dropped into her bed. And she had lived like that for ten years. Every month she sends money to support her old parents and younger brothers and sisters; she had helped to build a house for them; it will belong to her younger brother under customary law; she has no right to it. Rose has not been able to save any money so she had closed down her account. But she still hopes to make money if only she could get a job in Dubai or Singapore…

For Rose or thousands or hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in India International Women’s Day has no meaning. They have not even heard of the Day or if they have they do not know its historic significance and relevance to their lives. There is no trade union in India protect this generation of migrant workers; no political party looks upon them as an important constituency. For Rose March 8 is just another ordinary day of drudgery and grind.

Migrant workers all over the world are working in horrific conditions without the protection of labour laws or trade unions. And the most articulate and dominant sections of the feminist movement has not make the demands of the migrant women workers a part of the feminist programmes. In fact a significant section of feminist movement has become a party to the imperialist agenda justifying wars and foreign occupation.

In its origins International Women’s Day was a special day for women workers; an integral part of the Socialist and Communist movement. The historical origins of the Day can be traced to a three month strike in 1908 of almost 30,000 garment workers in the United States of America composing mainly of migrant women, in the garment industry. The women won most of the workers’ demands, including the right to organise, to bargain collectively, and improved wages and working conditions.

A year later in 1909 the first national women’s day was observed when the Socialist Party of America designated March 8th as “Women’s Day” in honour of the garment workers.

A few years later in 1912 witnessed the strike of 20,000 workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts when workers walked out of the mills in spontaneous protest against a cut in their weekly pay. This caused the walkout which rocked the great New England textile industry. This is a contemporary account of the strike:

"It was a wonderful strike, the most significant strike, the greatest strike that has ever been carried on in this country or any other country. And the most significant part of that strike was that it was a democracy. The strikers had a committee of 56, representing 27 different languages. The boss would have to see all the committee to do any business with them. And immediately behind that committee was a substitute committee of another 56 prepared in the event of the original committee's being arrested. Every official in touch with affairs at Lawrence had a substitute selected to take his place in the event of being thrown in jail."

After ten weeks the strikers won important concessions from the woolen companies, not only for themselves but also for 250,000 textile workers throughout New England.

During one of the many parades conducted by the strikers some young girls carried a banner with the slogan: "We want bread and roses too." This inspired James Oppenheim to write his poem, "Bread and Roses," which was set to music by Caroline Kohlsaat.

As we come 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 come 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 come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry 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 come 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!

The famous German socialist, Clara Zetkin and Russian writer Alexandra Kollontai took part in the most famous International Women's Day—the March 8, 1917, strike "for bread and peace" led by Russian women in St. Petersburg. Kollontai, a minister in the first Soviet government, persuaded Lenin to make March 8 an official communist holiday. During the Soviet period, the holiday celebrated "the heroic woman worker."

From 1909 to 1979 International Women’s Day was a part of socialist and communist movement and it embodied a vision of a future society which would allow men and women to have equal opportunities and allow them to fulfil their aspirations in a world free from poverty and injustice.

The German Marxist, August Bebel (1840-1913) wrote a book on Women and Socialism in which he stated:

The Socialist Party is the only one that has made the full equality of women, their liberation from every form of dependence and oppression, an integral part of its program; not for reasons of propaganda, but from necessity. For there can be no liberation of mankind without social independence and equality of the sexes.

However, this history of International Women’s Day is sought to be wiped out from the collective memories of men and women. It has now become a day when women are presented flowers and candy and is another Valentine’s Day or sorts. It is true the United Nations has been celebrating the Day since late 1970s; it has held world conferences on varying themes relating to the issue of Women’s Empowerment but the themes have increasingly focused on eliminating violence against women rather than focusing on the causes of that violence: unjust world order.

In 1999 the theme was World Free of Violence Against Women; 2000 Women Uniting for Peace; in 2001 Women and Peace: Women Managing Conflicts; in 2002 the theme was Afghan women today: realities and opportunities and in 2006 the theme was Ending Impunity Against Violence Against Women. A large part of the women’s movement and the International Women’s Day has been hijacked by imperialist powers to justify wars and foreign occupation.

A Pakistani feminist Hadia Akhtar has written an interesting piece on her blog about imperialist feminists who are being trained by the USA to justify the War Against Terror. It is worth quoting at length:

Aman-o-Nisa is a coalition of elite Pakistani NGO women leaders who were brought together, trained, funded and sent to DC by US-based organizations like United States Institute of Peace (USIP), Institute of Inclusive Security and the US State Department. After a two-year training, the coalition was sent as a delegation to Washington, DC for a week, where they met with US policymakers and made recommendations on how to make the War on Terror efforts more inclusive to the voices of elite NGO women. They lobbied for things like increased financial support for women’s organizations working in support of the War on Terror and the induction of more women in the security apparatus. Ground breaking stuff, really.

Hillary Clinton is a renowned Imperialist Feminist.

As an elder sister (Hadia Baji), even though I have a fair share of stories of how complicated sisterhood can be, I find this bond of solidarity between our Imperialist Baji, Sister Hillary, and NGO-wallis a bit strange. For instance, why is Hillary so interested in taking fifteen minutes out of her very busy schedule (those wars don’t plan themselves) to tell a bunch of NGO-aunties that they are her sisters? And why are these NGO-aunties so eager to go all the way to DC to meet with Hillary, Nancy Pelosi and other such important-types (other than from reaping the obvious benefits of foreign hotelling shotelling)?

This behanchara between an Imperialist Baji and her choti liberal NGO-walli behan doesn’t just gloss over the lives and voices of all the women who have been killed and dispossessed by the American and Pakistan States, it explicitly supports these ventures. In fact, the drone attacks and military operations like Zarb-e-Azab are supported by the main women’s rights and human groups: Aurat Foundation (who also happened to be the recipient of a $40 million grant from USAID)…. Most NGO-wallis I spoke to also support the US-led War on Terror. Many of them also downplay the atrocities of this war by arguing that ‘at least something is being done’ for women’s empowerment in Pakistan because of the influx of development aid.

While many on the left recognize the complicity of Pakistani women’s organizations in Imperialist ventures, some people I spoke to during my research were still hesitant in publicly denouncing their work because ‘they’ve (Aurat Foundation etc.) done a lot for women, they are not the enemy.’ I disagree. I think it’s high time that we denounce the liberal feminist NGO-walli’s support for her Imperialist Baji and her mischiefs.”

In India the dominant section of feminist voices have focused on individual cases of sexual harassment or rape but there is no discussion on why these crimes against women take place. Rosie faces sexual harassment at her work place very often but there is no forum which would take up her cause. She feels that only rich women’s cases get highlighted. She says she can handle the sexual harassment but it is the poverty and lack of a future that haunts her in her nightmares and waking hours.

The Black feminists, feminists of colour and socialist feminists have pointed out that there is a need to look at the totality of oppression based on class, gender and race have to be addressed. The migrant workers world over are the subject of abuse and humiliation; women workers like Rose are most vulnerable to violence based on class, race and sex. And yet it is these migrant workers whose remittances sustain the lives of hundreds and thousands of families who are being driven into destitution by the State policies and big corporations.

The challenge before feminists is how to make International Women’s Day relevant to migrant women workers in India and world over. We need to work towards compelling the United Nations to adopt 2016 as the Year of the Migrant Women Workers. In doing so the international organization would expose the real cause of violence and lack of development.

( Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer, teacher, activist and writer. She has set precedents in human rights and humanitarian law, evolved the country’s first human rights courses and has been involved in the women’s movement from the 1970s.)

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