International Women's Day: Bread, Roses, and Rose

By M. Lehrer

In 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned to the ground, trapping and killing 146 people--123 of whom were women, many of whom were supporting families--because the factory owners found it financially inconvenient to build fire exits. The funeral march for the victims drew a crowd of over 100,000. The memorial meeting was so big it was held at the Metropolitan Opera. One attendee, Rose Schneiderman, 29 years old, had been working since she was a child of 13. She stood in front of the people who had come to the meeting and surveyed the crowd. They were mostly wealthy, well-meaning women, many in the Women's Trade Union League, of which she herself was a member. They donated to the right causes and wrote letters to newspapers bemoaning the conditions of the factories and the foundries. They wanted words of comfort.

"I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship," she said. "This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death." She continued to the speechless crowd, "We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us." She wanted to comfort them, the good liberals of her time, but she couldn't. "I can't talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled."

One year later, trying to stir women of the upper classes into suffragist action, she coined the slogan that gives the DSA the rose on its flag: "What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too. Help, you women of privilege, give her the ballot to fight with."

A year after that, she became the Women's Trade Union League president. A founding member of the ACLU and a member of the Roosevelt brain trust, she presided over an era of economic justice, of bank-busting legislation, work-safety reforms, and the enfranchisement of women. Having labored herself in factories and coming from a background of poverty and discrimination as a first-generation Polish Jew, she understood what the moneyed, well-intentioned liberals of the time couldn't: liberation of women had to be liberation of all women, and that meant ending capitalism. Rose would fight for socialist policy for the rest of her life.

Today is International Women's Day, born in part of the work that women like Rose did so long ago. Today, on International Women's Day 2017, the DSA stands very nearly where Rose stood over 100 years ago. Many of the reforms that she fought so hard for have been rolled back or legislated around to the point of impotence. Unions have been broken. The Voting Rights Act has been gutted. Millions of poor workers are again left to die, not from unventilated factories but from skyrocketing healthcare costs and an administration that describes ending health care coverage for people in poverty as "a mercy." Once again those who bear the brunt of this damage are women. And once again we face well-meaning liberals who call themselves "feminists" but cannot conceive of a world that prioritizes people over profit.

We must follow Rose's lead. We must advocate for all people, not regardless of their race or class or gender but because of it. We cannot end one kind of oppression without ending them all. But the term for this, "Intersectionality," coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw and probably the most important social theory of our generation, has been co-opted as a buzzword. Let's take it back. Let's make our advocacy truly intersectional, liberating oppressed people from the chains of racism, sexism, and classism so we are all free to fight against the great oppressor: capitalism. A century ago our forebears changed their country for the better. Let's do it again.

M. Lehrer is a software engineer and DSA member. She writes mostly alarmist tweets and production code, and her main advocacy at the moment is health care.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

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May 30, 2017
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May 31, 2017
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Join DSA member Jason Schulman to discuss the film Rosa, directed by feminist filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. View it here at no cost before the discussion. Marxist theorist and economist Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) played a key role in German socialist politics. Jason edited Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy and has a chapter in Rosa Remix. 9 ET/8 CT/7 MT/6 PT.

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June 11, 2017
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Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Introduction to Democratic Socialism

June 13, 2017
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Join Bill Barclay, Chicago DSA co-chair, and Peg Strobel, National Political Committee and Feminist Working Group co-chair, on this webinar for an overview of what we in Democratic Socialists of America mean when we talk about "socialism," "capitalism" and the goals of the socialist movement. 9:30 PM ET; 8:30 PM CT; 7:30 PM MT; 6:30 PM PT.

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September 10, 2017
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Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

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September 24, 2017
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Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.