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Women and Work—A Tapestry of Our Lives

| April 8, 2011

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Susan Springer memorial shirtwaist

This week  the labor movement honored Dr. Martin Luther King, who died on April 4 defending workers in Memphis, with a National Day of Action for Worker's Rights. Here writer and WMC Progressive Women's Voices alumna Alida Brill reflects on our history.

Women’s History Month is over for this year. But I confess I haven't been in much of a celebratory mood. 

March 8th was the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.  The UN theme for the celebration was “Equal Access to Education, Training and Technology: Pathway to Decent Work for Women.”

Ironically, this March was also the 100th year commemoration of the tragedy of the Shirtwaist Triangle Factory Fire in New York City.  On March 25, 1911, 146 people died from a fire caused by unsafe workplace conditions. Many would have saved themselves, but the main doors were locked to keep the workers in and the unions out.  Most of those who died were young women and girls, mostly Jewish and Italian, and a few men—all of them immigrants or from immigrant families.  They were making shirtwaists (blouses) for women of means and status. Like workers in factories and mills all over this country 100 years ago, the Triangle workers were not yet united and able to speak together for their rights. It left them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

I was preparing with my colleague, the feminist artist Susan Springer Anderson, to commemorate the fire when Wisconsin’s newly elected Republican governor decided collective bargaining really wasn’t an important part of the American menu of core values.  It was difficult to remember the victories that the tragedy at the Triangle Waist Factory ushered into our tapestry of work and human rights in light of the ugly battles in Wisconsin, which we could witness each night on television.

Adding to an anti-worker sentiment running through our country, Maine’s governor, also a newly elected Republican, took aim at a mural created in 2007 by Judy Taylor, an artist who had won a statewide competition held by the Maine Arts Commission.  Her 11-panel mural depicts women and men at work from the colonial period forward but was judged as one-sided—read too pro-union—to be displayed in the capital’s Department of Labor building.  Taylor’s painting tells an American story. My colleague Susan Springer Anderson’s recreation of a shirtwaist (hers crafted out of Tyvek) tells the story of the New York workers killed by unfair labor practices. Art tells our stories.

Art and literature and the news tell the story of women and the work we do and our continuing struggle for fair treatment.  As I write this week, the Supreme Court has before it a case that will decide whether the lawsuit brought by women workers at Wal-Mart for decades of pay discrimination will qualify as a class action suit. Elizabeth Taylor died on March 23.  The Honorable Geraldine Ferraro died on March 26.  It’s been, at best, a mixed month for Women’s History. 

Elizabeth Taylor chose to use her "Star" status to raise money and awareness early in the fight against HIV-AIDS.  I still remember that moment when Geraldine Ferraro took the podium at the Democratic Convention as the first woman ever to become a vice-presidential candidate. Most women—and men—who work are not movie stars or political trailblazers. 

Most haven't much choice of what their work is going to be—only asking that there must be enough work of whatever type to pay the bills, to find the doctors or the clinics that care for working families.  That’s what the Shirtwaist Triangle Factory Fire Commemoration was about. It's the effort that Judy Taylor's mural celebrates in Maine.

Our country was built on hard work. But we are still a status-laden country, quick to put down those who work with their hands or perform tasks rather than invent new companies.  We speedily glorify those with careers and patronize—remember Joe the Plumber?—or punish those with jobs. There are moments when I think the Red-Scare days of the 1950s are back with us, that we are afraid of the very word Workers. The governor of Maine is apparently petrified.   According to the New York Times reporter, Steven Greenhouse, the governor ordered the mural removed “after receiving an anonymous fax saying it was reminiscent of ‘communist North Korea where they use these murals to brainwash the masses.’”

What does gives me hope?  I offer the juxtaposition of two photographs.  One is Susan’s memorial shirtwaist sculpture with the 146 names inscribed on it.  The other is a picture taken on the 25th at one of memorial events in New York.  The young women in the foreground of the photograph suggest to me that they know our history and they know our present.  And that each of us must step up and move together to support all workers to ensure a future that looks better than today.

[Image 2: Triangle shirtwaist fire memorial, New York City, March 25, 2011.]

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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