Yesterday was International Women’s Day, which, like many holidays with more radical roots, has kind of been co-opted by capitalism.
International Women’s Day was actually not created so that we could post #inspirational memes or pictures of your #WCE girlfriends. IWD was in fact created after female textile workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York went on strike over labor conditions in 1909. (After the strike ended in 1910, in 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire occurred, which prompted more government oversight into the safety of factories and working conditions.)
It is crucial to remember the roots of IWD because the same gendered power imbalances are still an issue today.
The striking workers in 1909 were largely Jewish immigrants and the victims of the fire in 1911 were mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants who took on factory jobs because they were available–not because they were good jobs. This dynamic still rings true. Although most clothing manufacturing today occurs outside of the United States, most garment workers are female (estimates range between 60-80% of all garment workers). These workers are typically paid very little and frequently work in unsafe conditions. (The 2012 factory explosion in Dhaka, Bangladesh is one modern example among many.) To keep up with consumers’ want for fast, cheap fashion in developed countries, clothing manufacturers make clothing as cheaply as possible to maximize profits and keep prices low.
Modern garment workers are threatened with violence and loss of jobs if they demand better working conditions. With depressed wages everywhere, leverage is hard without a united front of workers, although workers who form unions are also often punished. In Cambodia, the government denied a request of female garment workers to use city hall for a rally space on IWD for fear of appearing “political.”
Consumers have the power to vote with their dollars and demand more from companies who produce clothing under unethical conditions. Likewise, this is something that matters not just for big brands but also for one-off t-shirt fundraisers or merch associated with causes. Broadly’s article, Was Your Feminist T-Shirt Made by Factory Workers in Exploitative Conditions? brings up important points. When you’re buying a t-shirt off zazzle or from a t-shirt table at an event, how do you know where that t-shirt is made? And isn’t it extra ironic if that t-shirt is emblazoned with a message about gender equality?
Thinking about clothing production as a gender issue (even if there are also factory workers who are men and who can and should benefit from improved conditions and wages along with their female coworkers) is important because it gets at some of the systemic inequalities involved in labor issues. “Women’s jobs” have historically and continue to be under-valued economically and socially. Think about who you imagine as a nurse vs. doctor or teacher vs. professor, or cook vs. chef. In professional hierarchies, women are more frequently in the lower-paying, lower-prestige positions. (Some of this is by choice, but choice is also guided by opportunity and social norms, so don’t give me any of that “women choose lower paying jobs and that’s why there’s income inequality” nonsense.) For professions that are dominated by female workers, like garment workers, systematic low wages are not just an issue of fair pay but gender inequity.
(Locally, this dynamic played out yesterday as over 900+ female teachers called out from the Philadelphia school district for the IWD Day Without a Woman strike. Teachers are predominately female and in Philadelphia, have been working for over 3 years without a contract. They are underpaid compared to their suburban counterparts and in a chronically underfunded school district. Funding Philadelphia’s schools properly is important for students and for their mostly female teachers!)
IWD is now over, but gender equality is an issue every day. Don’t get lazy, keep learning and listening and challenging default narratives about gender and labor!