Horrified and helpless, the crowds — I among them — looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies.
The emotions of the crowd were indescribable. Women were hysterical, scores fainted; men wept as, in paroxysms of frenzy, they hurled themselves against the police lines.
Louis Waldman, Labor Lawyer, NY: E.P. Dutton & Co.,1944, 32–33
On March 25, 1911 the ‘Triangle Shirtwaist Fire’ in New York City was the second deadliest disaster in New York City until the destruction of the World Trade Center 90 years later. Most of the 140 who perished were recent Jewish and Italian immigrant women aged sixteen to twenty-three. Fourteen-year-olds Kate Leone and Rosaria (Sara) Maltese are the youngest victims known. The managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits – a common practice at the time to prevent pilferage and unauthorized work-breaks.
In 1909, Clara Lemlich had rallied 20,000 of the Triangle Factory workers to a walk-out, a catalyst for the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union to achieve decent conditions for sweatshop workers. After the blaze, women instigated legislation to require improved factory safety standards – for men and women.
In 1910, a year before the fire, Clara Zetkin, a leader in the Social Democratic Party in Germany and close friend of Rosa Luxemburg, initiated International Women’s Day. Every year in every country, she declared, there should be a day to spotlight women’s priorities.
Between January and March 1912, Chicago Women Trade Unionists were striking at the Lawrence MA textile factory. This pivotal strike became known as the “Bread and Roses Strike” after a poem inspired by the women activists for fair wages and dignified conditions.
As we go marching, marching, we bring the greater days,
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses, bread and roses.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; bread and roses, bread and roses.
From “Bread and Roses” by James Oppenheim, reprinted in The Cry For Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest, ed. by Upton Sinclair, NY, 1915.
In the ebb and flow of waves during the past more than a century, lashing back and forth, many have lost feminist bearings. The priorities of the women’s movement are humanity’s priorities.
Among the core values feminists contribute toward realizing in the world,
- respect for the full dignity of all people and our integrity as active agents of our destiny
- freedom from discrimination and gender-oppressive roles in all areas and environments
- personal and collective safety and security – at home, at work, and on the street
- decent, healthy living and working conditions
- equitable distribution of resources and opportunity for all people
- children’s wellbeing
- good education
- fair pay
- transparency in the public and private sectors
- representative and accountable leadership
- responsible stewardship of our environment, and
Is there anyone out there who would really want to contend with these goals?
Yet, according to current UN Facts & Figures on Women, Poverty & Economics, “Women perform sixty-six percent of the world’s work, produce fifty percent of the food, but earn ten percent of the income and own one percent of the property.”
In this new millennium, traditional gender roles in all cultures are arguably one of the most significant factors impeding development, the prospects for sustainability and peace, and the quality of human life. Religion is a cultural master key to women’s public participation and leadership, and to the betterment of the human condition.
As we enter the Jewish Passover festival season, and as we eat our matza, bread of affliction, let us carry forth the clarion call of International Women’s Day – free men and women working side-by-side to live by and better fulfill the finest humanity of all. Onward to Jewish Spring!