Today is International Women’s Day. Around the world, people, countries, and organizations celebrate progress for women’s parity and advocate for change to improve gender equality and women’s rights. Although the UN declared this official commemoration only 40 years ago, its seeds came on March 8, 1857, when garment workers marched and picketed in New York City, demanding a ten-hour day, better working conditions, and equal rights for women. The police broke up the march, and the next march occurred 51 years later when women in needle trades honored the 1857 march by demanding the vote and an end to sweatshops and child labor.
A tradition of women’s unions came after the Civil War when widowhood and poverty forced women into the labor force, much to the hostility of men who refused to allow women into their unions. Women cigar makers, umbrella sewers, printers, tailoresses, and laundresses formed unions. The most famous union came from clothing workers, especially the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, founded about 1900. At that time, women worked in horrible conditions with no overtime pay and were fined for anything—talking, singing, etc. The formation of the National Women’s Trade Union League in 1903 led to strikes against two companies, one of them the Triangle Waist Company where 146 people died in a fire after being trapped by locked doors. Judges ruled against women who were clubbed by police while picketing, claiming that they were “on strike against God.”
The first National Women’s Day in the United States was February 28, 1909 after a declaration by the Socialist Party of America. In 1910, German socialist Clara Zetkin proposed the commemoration of the U.S. demonstrations on March 8 to honor working women throughout the world. By 1913, when Russia first celebrated Women’s Day, countries settled on March 8 for the date of International Women’s Day. Participation of Russian women textile workers in a mass strike in 1917 helped spark the Russian Revolution. By 1965, the USSR declared Women’s Day as a non-working day, and IWD is an official holiday in 15 countries including China, Ukraine and Vietnam.. In China, women began celebrating in 1924 with a strong women’s movement in the Communist party.
Remarkable working women activists in the United States include Mother Jones, Ella Reeve Bloor, Kate Mullaney, Sojourner Truth, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. At the age of 90, Jones terrorized scabs in the 1919 steel strike. Joining these women were untold numbers of unnamed women who knew that they needed to stand and work together to keep from being individually destroyed. Among these were the women in the Lawrence textile strike who carried picket signs reading “We want Bread and Roses, too.” From this demand for a living wage with a decent and human life came James Oppenheim’s song “Bread and Roses”:
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 bring the greater days.
The rising of the women means the rising of the race,
No more the drudge and idler that toil where one reposes
But a sharing of life’s glories, Bread and Roses, Bread and Roses.
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “Pledge for Parity,” calling for complete gender equality and the closing of the gender gap in social, economic, political, and other situations. Unlike countries such as Afghanistan and China, the United States does not formally recognize March 8 by giving time off work.
Women in the U.S. lack the same equality as women in many other countries. A survey regarding the best countries for women to live in shows the United States to be 13th. Rankings were determined by five factors: concern for human rights, gender equality, income equality, safety, and progressiveness. The top seven in ranking are mostly European nations with Denmark rated #1 for its earnings-related daycare system and flexible parental leave policies. Sweden is the top in gender equality with women politicians taken half the positions in the Swedish Parliament, education in sexism beginning in kindergarten, and freed education for all.
Canada falls in third place with its quality of health, workplace opportunities, and freedom from violence. Canadian women have access to contraception, and 33 percent of federally appointed judges are women. In the United States, about one-third of the courts—including the Supreme Court—are women.
I repeat: the United States is 13th in ranking.
Other ways in which U.S. women’s equality falls behind that in other countries:
The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW): Only seven of the 193 member states of the UN have not ratified this “international bill of rights for women” to end discrimination, establish equality, and fight against violence—Iran, Palau, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Tonga, and the United States. Two-thirds of the Senate must vote in favor of CEDAW, adopted by the UN in 1979; the issue has never even gotten to the Senate floor for a vote.
Guaranteed paid leave for mothers of newborns: Only nine countries in the world do not provide this benefit—Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Suriname, and Tonga. Five of these countries—but not the United States—do provide paid maternity leave for public sector workers. Also, 49 percent of countries, including Saudi Arabia, provide paid leave to both parents.
Wage equality: Of 142 countries, the United States ranks 65th in pay equality for similar work. Countries where women are better off include the United Arab Emirates, the Kyrgyz Republic, Egypt, Iceland, Japan, Botswana, Honduras, and Ethiopia. The top five are Burundi, Mongolia, Qatar, Thailand, and Malaysia. In 2013, women who worked full-time, were paid 78 cents for every dollar earned on average by men. Black women made 64 cents, and Latinas made 56 cents for every dollar earned by a white man.
Congress: The United States now has more women in Congress than ever—104 of 535 seats. That’s 19.5 percent at a time when women make up 51 percent of the population. This nation ranks in the bottom half of the world’s national parliaments—72nd of 139 spots with almost 50 ties in the 190 countries, in female population.
Female Head of State: During the past 50 year, 52 other countries—including India for 21 years—have had women leading the country. Other countries with women in charge include Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Liberia and China.
Constitutions: Of the 197 constitutions throughout the world, 165—about 84 percent—explicitly guarantee gender equality. But not the U.S. Constitution. Some people have claimed that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment may protect women, but at least one Supreme Court justice—Antonin Scalia—has said that women are not protected by the nation’s constitution. Since the U.S. drafted the post-World War II Japanese constitution, which included equal rights for women, women in Japan have more rights than those in the United States. The Equal Rights Amendment, meant to give women in this nation the protections in other countries, was first introduced to Congress in 1923. Both houses of Congress passed it in 1972, but by the 1982 deadline it fell short of the 38 states necessary for ratification by three states.
One reason for women’s oppression comes from female legislators who oppose equal rights. Reps. Marsha Blackburn and Jackie Black (R-TN) work in the U.S. House to keep women from having reproductive rights, and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) voted against giving women equal pay in the Lilly Ledbetter Act. Phyllis Schafley, leader of the Eagle Forum, was instrumental in defeating the Equal Rights Amendment.
In my beloved state of Oregon, House members decided to replace its two statues in the U.S. Capitol’s Statutory Hall. After a popular vote from the people, a commission selected Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe and Abigail Scott Duniway, an activist largely instrumental in gaining women’s suffrage in Oregon before a federal amendment mandated women’s right to vote. Yet an overwhelming House vote chose Mark Hatfield instead of Duniway because the bill’s sponsor was mentored by the long-time influential GOP senator. All the 20 women in the Oregon House—one-third of the chamber—voted against Duniway except one who was excused. At this time, only ten women—ten percent of the total—are represented in Statutory Hall. Just one small example of many showing how females continue to be disadvantaged because many women refuse to support gender equality.