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.

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