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Tuesday, March 8th marks International Women’s Day (IWD), the celebration of women’s economic, political, and social achievements around the world. While IWD is intended to inspire us, it’s also a day when we are challenged to address the persistent inequalities that continue to plague women and girls both in the US and around the world.
The story of International Women’s Day provides one small but telling example of how women contribute significantly to the improvement of our society and our world, despite the lack of equality. It begins with the socialist and labor movements at the turn of the twentieth century in North America and across Europe.
In 1909, thousands of garment workers in New York City, most of them young, Jewish immigrant women, went on strike to demand better pay, shorter hours, and improved working conditions. They also objected to the common practice of locking the doors of the work floors from the outside as a way to control the workforce. The strike, dubbed the “Uprising of the 20,000” was inspired by Clara Lemlich, who had organized her co-workers, called the farbrente maydlakh (the fiery girls, in Yiddish) into an all-female chapter of the newly formed International Ladies Garment Workers Union. The vote to strike followed an impassioned speech she gave in the Great Hall of Cooper Union. “I am one of those who suffers from the abuses described here, and I move that we go on a general strike,” she said in Yiddish, after several labor leaders including Samuel Gompers had recommended against it. The strikers gained support from the Women’s Trade Union League who provided them with legal, financial, and public relations assistance. By February 1910, most employers had signed union contracts. The Triangle Waist Company and some of the other larger firms resisted.
The Socialist Party designated February 28th, 1909 as the first National Women’s Day in honor of the strike. Tragically, two years later, 146 garment workers were to die in the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. The doors of the factory had been locked and there was no way out. Many workers jumped to their deaths. But the strike marked an important milestone for the American Labor movement, especially the garment trade unions, as many employers began to recognize them. And women had a lot to do with it.
The idea for an International Women’s Day was conceived in 1910, at the Socialist International meeting in Copenhagen, when Clara Zetkin, leader of the ‘Women’s Office’ for the Social Democratic Party in Germany, suggested the idea to honor the movement for women’s rights and to build support for achieving universal suffrage for women. She proposed that every country celebrate it every year on the same day. In 1911, over a million people attended rallies honoring IWD in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland on March 19. They campaigned for women’s rights to work, vote, be trained, to hold public office and end discrimination. Fast forward to 1975, when the United Nations gave official sanction to IWD and began sponsoring the Day with a different theme every year.
This year’s theme is “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality”. The United Nations observance on March 8th will reflect on how to accelerate the 2030 Agenda, building momentum for the effective implementation of the new Sustainable Development Goals. It will focus on new commitments under UN Women’s Step It Up initiative, and other existing commitments to gender equality, women’s empowerment and women’s human rights. The UN has said, “Women and girls make up more than half the world’s population — and they are on the frontlines — often more deeply impacted than men and boys by poverty, climate change, food insecurity, lack of healthcare, and global economic crises. Their contributions and leadership are central to finding a solution.”
One area of women’s inequality that remains is the lack of representation in peacemaking and negotiations. Included in the new sustainable development goals are the benchmarks established in 2000 by UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security.
Passage of the Resolution was an acknowledgement of the changing nature of warfare, in which civilians are increasingly targeted, and women continue to be excluded from participation in peace processes. UNSCR 1325 “addresses not only the inordinate impact of war on women, but also the pivotal role women should and do play in conflict management, conflict resolution, and sustainable peace.”
We should ask: What role are women playing to end the Israeli Palestinian conflict? What would happen if they were invited to participate more fully at the negotiation table? Many impressive and courageous women are beginning to give us some answers.
Last year on International Women’s Day, Palestinian and Israeli women on both sides of the security barrier marched to the Qalandia checkpoint and were met with teargas. This year, a group of Israelis and Palestinians marked International Women’s Day by marching outside the “tunnels checkpoint” in the West Bank. “Women in Palestine are the leaders of the struggle for equality and independence,” said Huda Abuarquob, a Palestinian living in Hebron and Regional Director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP). “Our children pay the price of the conflict, and we want to protect them. Our message is that justice is necessary for Palestine, and security is necessary for Israel. We can’t have one without the other.”
Women Wage Peace, a new and growing movement of women from all parts of Israeli society, Jewish secular and religious, Palestinian Christian and Muslim, Mizrachi and Ashkenazi, with a connection to Palestinian women in the Territories, will be showing the film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” in several venues all over Israel to mark International Womens’ Day. The film documents the role of Liberian women in ending the bloody and horrific civil war there.
Then there is the Movement for the Future of the Western Negev, a courageous group of Israeli women and men who live near the border with Gaza and have endured Hamas rocket bombardment for many years. They demand that the government of Israel work to negotiate a truce with Hamas, rather than waiting for the next round of fighting and loss on both sides.
This list of people and groups does not do justice to the tireless and brave work of others out there. But it’s a beginning.
On this International Women’s Day, let’s recognize, encourage and promote the farbrente maydlakh in Israel/Palestine and the men who are their partners, who say, “enough is enough” as Clara did. They are challenging the current stalemate, and building non-violent movements to end the conflict. In her analysis of the available data on the impact of women’s inclusion in peacemaking and negotiations, “Inclusive Security and Peaceful Societies: Exploring the Evidence”, Marie O’Reilly concludes:
“The empirical evidence is overwhelming: where women’s inclusion is prioritized, peace is more likely—particularly when women are in a position to influence decision-making.……. Women promote dialogue and build trust.”
Let’s imagine a world in which women’s significant contributions towards a more humane world are fully honored and harnessed. And then let’s imagine what powerful movements for change could be unleashed.
Happy International Women’s Day!
Nancy Bernstein is a member of J Street’s Board of Directors and a Co-Chair of the J Street Women’s Leadership Forum.