Why we’re celebrating international women’s day and we invite you to too

By Kate Hawkins, Research in Gender and Ethics: Building stronger health systems (RinGs)

When you work on health there are many international days which crop up during the year. Sometimes it’s easy to disconnect from their origins and meaning. It is International Women’s Day in a month’s time. So I thought it might be useful to reflect on what they day has meant and how we might celebrate it as people who have a commitment to health systems.

Whilst we tend to think of International Women’s Day as an initiative of the United Nation its roots are in women’s labour organizing. “We’d rather starve quick than starve slow,” was one of the slogans used by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (the ILGWU) during their strike of 1909 in America. The ILGWU were fighting for improvements in their working conditions, as the factories that employed them were essentially sweatshops.

The strike was led mainly by young, immigrant workers – Jewish women from Russia, Poles, and Italians who conducted their meetings in English, Yiddish and Italian. The call to strike was actually made by a 15-year-old Ukraine-born girl worker, Clara Lemlich. Factory workers were joined in their struggle by some middle class women who offered financialand practical support.

In striking they confounded the mainstream, male labour movement, who were skeptical about their ability to organize themselves, and they defied the state (they were unfairly arrested by the police and beaten by hired local thugs). The ILGWU accepted a settlement in 1910 that improved things like working hours but didn’t give their union recognition. In 1909 the Socialist Party of Americacelebrated International Women’s Day for the first time in remembrance of the strike.

To say that the women were striking for their lives is no exaggeration. In 1911, 146 women employed in a clothing factory died when a fire broke out in their workplace – the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory – the number of deaths was high because of the poor health and safety practices that were employed there.

Promotion of the concept of International Women’s Day beyond the United States was taken up by Clara Zetkin. Later to be adopted by the United Nations  (in 1975) with a General Assembly Resolution. However, for many woman workers around the world occupational environments still constitute a hazard to health.

Thinking and acting together to make change

Whilst many people working in international development and global health may celebrate International Women’s Day we don’t often talk about its roots in collective organizing, intersectional struggle, and a radical redefinition of the possible. Thinking about the creation of the Day reminds us that gender equity is not just a nice idea, it can literally be lifesaving. Remembering this heritage is one way of sparking new ways of thinking and new partnerships to address the seemingly intractable issue of gender inequity. This is especially timely as one of the themes of the upcoming Global Symposium is Equity, Rights, Gender and Ethics.

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality”, with a focus on building momentum for the implementation of the new Sustainable Development Goals. This year we have asked Health Systems Global to celebrate International Women’s Day by running a month where they promote content on health systems and gender equality in the form of blogs, webinars, and a Twitter chat. You can find out more about the Twitter chat on this blog.

The blog series is open to all Health Systems Global members and it would be great to get inputs from a range of countries and perspectives. We hope that there will be active participation across all of the Thematic Working Groups. Please do get in touch and let us know how you would like to contribute.

If you can think of any other ways that we can share information on health systems and gender we are open to your ideas and we look forward to hearing from you.

Photo credits:

Two strikers during the 1909 “Uprising” courtesy of http://labormovement.blogs.brynmawr.edu/ a site dedicated to the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union

At a rally by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union at the site of Triangle fire, placards in English and Spanish naming Domsey Fiber include “We shall not forget” and “Trabajadores uniodos hamas seran vencidos” pointing to the continuing struggles of immigrant workers.
Photographer: unknown, 1990, Kheel Center