International Women’s Day, Labor, and the Right to Strive #womensday
Today is International Women’s Day and my Twitter feed courses with feminist politics, links to causes involving women and girls, and high-minded wishes for a world without base misogyny and cruel sexual exploitation. There’s a Google doodle and a White House proclamation. There’s a website and a hashtagand a slogan: “a modern progressive world needs equality.”
And who can disagree? Indeed among progressive men who tend to work the side of modern feminist causes, I’m not sure there’s a more eloquent message out there than the tweet by Jamil Smith, digital producer for MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show:
Yet in reading some of the posts this morning, I found myself thinking about work and the nature of opportunity and success. International Women’s Day traces its origins back to a protest by women garment workers in New York against poor working conditions. In 1908, the Socialist Party of American established a day to support the garment workers and a year later, behind the slogan “Bread and Roses,” the commemoration spread to Europe. The deaths of 146 workers, mostly young immigrant women, in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of New York, showed the prescience of those original protests and the International Women’s Day movement gained steam in demonstrating against the slaughter of the trenches in World War I and was instrumental in the downfall of the Russian Czar.
At its core, International Women’s Day was about the right to work – and the right to work in fair conditions, properly compensated for labor, and legally organized in open forums.
Fast forward to 2013. On Wednesday night, I was privileged to moderate a panel discussion for NYU’s Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising (where I teach) on networked feminism, social media, and role of women in philanthropy. Organized as part of a series on digital philanthropy by my colleague Marcia Stepanek, the discussion centered on the power and speed of networks in reacting to crisis and news. As I’ve written here and elsewhere, I don’t think there’s a more powerful networked force than networked feminists out there; movements organized or distributed widely by citizens with a strong feminist viewpoint are among the fastest-growing and most potent on the digital social commons.
But as author Allison Fine cannily pointed out on our panel – which unfolded without irony just a block away from the Triangle Shirtwaist building (now NYU classrooms) – all the panelists as well as the moderator were, in terms of labor, part of the growing free agent economy.
And, she elaborated, those types of workers are both better networked and less encumbered by the kinds of full-time jobs that encourage a more quiet obeisance to the social strictures of the workplace. This is not to endow the “freelance economy” with ennobling qualities it does not necessarily enjoy (or to ignore the fact that many people create their own jobs not by choice but by necessity, as wages and benefits in the country formerly known as Full-Time Land decline), but to observe that freedom from punching the time clock has created opportunity – and allowed many women to take to the digital street who might not have been either inclined to, or able to, in previous generations.
Heads nodded and not just mine. Next to Allison were three accomplished women, all social entrepreneurs, who scraped beautiful roads from the dust. Vanessa Valenti, co-founder of a leading community of online feminists, Feministing, winner of a Hillman Prize (another small irony, since Sidney Hillman led the union formed by the women garment workers who created International Women’s Day) discussed research into the long-term sustainability of online feminist networks that took on the likes of Rush Limbaugh. [Disclosure: the Sidney Hillman Foundation is my client.]
Jennifer James, founder of a massive network of 18,000 “mom bloggers,” talked about leveraging those voices into a movement for social change and philanthropy – a goal she achieved last year with the launch of Mom Bloggers for Social Good, a global coalition of bloggers from 17 countries.
And filmmaker Nancy Schwartzman, director of the fascinating 2009 documentary The Line and founder of The Line Campaign, an interactive campaign aimed at battling rape culture, who showed her Circle of 6 smart phone app, winner of the White House “Apps Against Abuse” Technology Challenge.
Only a hundred yards and a hundred years from a scene of terror and labor abuse that ignited a movement, these free agents aren’t working around the edges of social change and scuffling in part-time jobs (though the personal economic challenges should not be understated) – they’re at the center of the largest cohesive network of activists and organizers at work in the world today. And Allison Fine was right: the nature of their labor and the changing structure of how so many of us work today provides fuel and opportunity to that movement. What’s fascinating to me is that so much of what needs to be considered on International Women’s Day is economic, both here in the United States and around the world.
The network allows us to share and plan and organize more quickly – and those abilities simply cannot be discounted – but it’s also the “showing up” that changes society over time.
And that’s a factor that the workers who rallied in the name of organized labor and better working conditions to found International Women’s Day would clearly recognize in the evident success of their empowered, wired, and decidedly unbowed descendents.
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