International Women's Day 2011
“100 Years Later, The Roll of the Dead in a Factory Fire Is Complete”. This was the headline in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago in which it was reported that a diligent researcher had finally identified the last of the “unknown victims” in the fire at the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory in Manhattan on 25 March 1911.
146 workers, many of them women and girls, recent immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe, lost their lives in that fire due to the lack of minimum safety measures. It was a massacre, more than a tragedy, as those poor women and men died because the owner had locked all the doors, trapping the workers inside the factory.
One week before the fire, on 19 March 1911 the first International Women's Day was celebrated by over one million women in Europe, demanding political rights and the right to work. The demonstrations took place in Germany, Austria, Denmark, Switzerland (countries from which most of the 58 delegates to the 2nd Congress of the Socialist International Women came from). On Clara Zetkin’s proposal, the Congress had decided that women all over the world should rally and demonstrate for one day in the month of March, in favour of their rights and political emancipation.
These two events, that of the demonstrations in the “Old World” and that of the fire in the “New World” have thus become indelibly linked by a tragic intersection of ideas and events. It is right to keep the link between these two events which marked the history of women’s emancipation and legislation, the first with an initiative of protest and demand, the second for the ensuing scandal which finally led to the passage of new workplace safety laws, pro-worker policies, and labour laws.
Celebrating International Women’s Day helps to keep the memory of a past event which happened one hundred years ago and that of entering a struggle for work and political rights, that in turn have allowed following generations of women and men to have a better quality of life.
The 8 March should be a day for us to remember and to give new impetus to women’s rights, emancipation and feminism.