African women excluded for IWD history



You maintain your sense of humor

You remember a joke you heard

Well no matter what

A Black Woman never has to starve

Just as long as there are

Dirty toilets and…

Somehow it isn’t funny

Excerpt from The Tired Poem: Last Letter From a Typical Unemployed Black Professional Woman by Kate Rushin.

International Women’s Day (IWD) is a worldwide celebration and commemoration of a movement that began in the 1900s. In a pamphlet I received when I attended a 2008 Canadian labour movement event for IWD the information included this history of IWD

“On March 8, 1908, 15,000 women marched through the streets of Manhattan, demanding the right to vote, but also their rights as working women: shorter hours, better pay and right to join a union.”

The reality for African women in America at that time was very different. There is no mention of the countless enslaved African women who laboured without pay in New York and across the United States of America. No mention of the enslaved African women whose unpaid labour enriched White people in Central, North, South America and Europe.

After the abolition of chattel slavery in the United States (1865) the work that was available to African-American women was reminiscent of the work they did during their enslavement. They worked as cooks, housekeepers, laundresses, maids and washerwomen.

There were some 1,017,000 African-American domestic workers before the start of the second European tribal warfare (World War II.) In the Southern states most of the women were sharecroppers or agricultural wage labourers. Elizabeth R. Rose in A Mother’s Job: The History of Day Care, 1890-1960, published in 1998 writes: “When African-American women were employed in other industries, they were segregated into the dirtiest and most unpleasant part of the work.”

Those few who were “fortunate” to become employed as factory workers worked longer hours and made less than White women. It is hardly likely that there were any African-American women in the group of 15,000 factory workers who marched through the streets of Manhattan on March 8, 1908 because they would most likely not have been working in a factory in New York.

Even though African women are not written into the history of the beginning of International Women’s Day, we have contributed to the women’s movement. Today, in the 21st Century while we are celebrating, many people choose to forget this reality. The history of IWD does not include racialized women.

Some organizations claim that IWD began in 1909, some 1910 and still others 1911. Here are some examples:

1909: The first National Woman’s Day was observed in the United States on February 28. The Socialist Party of America designated this day in honour of the 1908 garment workers’ strike in New York, where women protested against working conditions.

1910: The Socialist International, meeting in Copenhagen, established a Women’s Day, international in character, to honour the movement for women’s rights and to build support for achieving universal suffrage for women. The proposal was greeted with unanimous approval by the conference of over 100 women from 17 countries, which included the first three women elected to the Finnish Parliament. No fixed date was selected for the observance.

1911: As a result of the Copenhagen initiative, International Women’s Day was marked for the first time (19 March) in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, where more than one million women and men attended rallies. In addition to the right to vote and to hold public office, they demanded women’s rights to work, to vocational training and to an end to discrimination on the job.

From this information, to all intents and purposes, the history of IWD is the history of White women because there is no mention of racialized women in any of this.

From the Status of Women Canada website: “Canadian women have made enormous strides. The current Government has the highest percentage of women in Cabinet in Canadian history. The House of Commons currently has 67 women. The labour force participation rate for working-age women (15-64 years) has risen from 68.2 per cent to 74.3 per cent over the past decade (1997-2008). In 2007, women made up 35 per cent of all self-employed individuals.”

What this information fails to mention is that of the 67 women in Canada’s House of Commons there is one African Canadian. While the labour force participation rate for working-age Canadian women may have risen 68.2 per cent, many African Canadian and other racialized women work in precarious job situations including contract jobs which may last up to a year and then those women are unemployed, desperately seeking employment where in many cases they are forced to take on more precarious work just to survive.

Even though African women have not been included in the history of IWD we have some of our history documented and the names of our sheroes recognized. In 1974 a group of African-American women began meeting and in 1978 they published the Combahee River Collective Statement.

Part of that statement could offer an explanation for the absence of African women from the history of IWD and reads: “One issue that is of major concern to us and that we have begun to publicly address is racism in the white women’s movement. As black feminists we are made constantly and painfully aware of how little effort white women have made to understand and combat their racism, which requires among other things that they have a more than superficial comprehension of race, color, and Black history and culture. Eliminating racism in the white women’s movement is by definition work for white women to do, but we will continue to speak to and demand accountability on this issue.”

The Combahee River Collective was named to honour one of our beloved sheroes, Harriet Tubman. The exploits of Harriet Tubman who transitioned on March 10, 1913 have reached mythic proportions. She was a conductor on the Underground Railroad who made 19 trips into enemy territory and rescued more than 300 slaves in spite of a $40,000 bounty on her head. She also worked as cook, nurse and spy for the Union army during the American Civil War.

Her role in the rescue of a further 800 enslaved Africans on June 2, 1863 is documented in the Wisconsin State Journal, of Saturday, June 20, 1863 Vol. XI No. 237 page 2. Under the headline A ‘Black she Moses’ — Her Wonderful Daring and Sagacity, part of the article reads: “Col. Montgomery and his gallant band of 300 black soldiers, under the guidance of a black woman, dashed into the enemies’ country, struck a bold and effective blow, destroying millions of dollars worth of commissary stores, cotton, and lordly dwellings, and striking terror to the heart of rebellion, brought off near 800 slaves and thousands of dollars worth of property, without losing a man or receiving a scratch! It was a glorious consummation. The Colonel was followed by a speech from the black woman who led the raid, and under whose inspiration it was originated and conducted. For sound sense and real native eloquence, her address would do honor to any man, and it created quite a sensation.”

Although the United Nations has designated 2011 the International Year for People of African Descent and the African Union has designated (2010-2020) the African Women’s Decade, that is not recognized by any of the worldwide IWD celebrations.

The words of the Combahee River Collection published 32 years ago are still relevant in 2011: “We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us. Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work. We do not have racial, sexual, heterosexual, or class privilege to rely upon, nor do we have even the minimal access to resources and power that groups who possess anyone of these types of privilege have. We are dispossessed psychologically and on every other level, and yet we feel the necessity to struggle to change the condition of all.”

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