By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
Saturday March 8 will be celebrated throughout Canada as International Women’s Day (IWD.) IWD has been official in this country since 1977 following a United Nations resolution calling for member states to proclaim a day for women’s rights and international peace.
The idea of IWD began two years before in 1975 during International Women’s Year when the UN began celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8. In adopting its resolution, the General Assembly recognized the role of women in peace efforts and development and urged an end to discrimination and an increase of support for women’s full and equal participation. In 2014 the theme for IWD is “Inspiring Change.”
Usually, during this time, the women who are celebrated are White women. We read and hear about the history of White women. There might be one or two racialized women who are mentioned but it is a celebration of White women. Even reading about the history of IWD it supposedly began with White women in Europe (1911) or in the USA (1908). The stories abound of these White women fighting for the right to work shorter hours, receive better pay and the right to vote. Ironically, at the same time White women were living on the African continent and other areas where racialized women were forced to work as domestic help for little or no pay.
This women’s struggle for equal rights with men did not include those racialized women. In America in 1908 while 15,000 White women “marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights” African-American women were on their hands and knees cleaning the homes of White women. Slavery had only been abolished (1865) in the USA 43 years before. Not much had changed in the lives of African-American women, many of whom just exchanged the unpaid drudgery and brutality of chattel slavery for a life of drudgery with hardly any financial compensation for their labour as “free” women.
The exploitation of African-American women in New York was exposed in 1935 when African-American Civil Rights activists Ella Baker and Marvel Cooke wrote an expose of the “Bronx Slave Markets”, which was published in the November 1935 issue of the magazine, The Crisis. The magazine had been founded by W.E.B. DuBois in 1910 as the official publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The five-part series documented the experience of African-American women (between 17 and 70 years old) in New York who worked as domestic servants. These African-American women desperately seeking paid employment “would stand on a two-block stretch as White housewives from the suburbs drove by in their cars and negotiated to hire them for domestic service”.
The area on 170th Street between Jerome and Walton Avenues was the area considered the “Bronx Slave Market” and this is where the African-American women stood in good or bad weather waiting for some White housewife to drive through and choose them for a day’s work cleaning house.
In her first article of the series Cooke wrote: “I was part of the ‘paper bag brigade’, waiting patiently in front of Woolworth’s on 170th St., between Jerome and Walton Aves., for someone to ‘buy’ me for an hour or two, or, if I were lucky, for a day. That is The Bronx Slave Market, where Negro women wait, in rain or shine, in bitter cold or under broiling Sun, to be hired by local housewives looking for bargains in human labour. It has its counterparts in Brighton Beach, Brownsville and other areas of the city.”
Following in-depth interviews and hours of research, Baker and Cooke observed: “Rain or shine, hot or cold, you will find them there, Negro women old and young sometimes bedraggled sometimes neatly dressed waiting expectantly for Bronx housewives to buy their strength and energy for an hour, two hours or even for a day at the munificent rate of fifteen, twenty-five or, if luck be with them, thirty cents.”
The African-American women who waited patiently and anxiously to be “picked” for work were also known as the “paper bag brigade” because they carried their “work clothes” in paper bags. In their groundbreaking expose, Baker and Cooke also discussed the backbreaking work and the sexual assault the women often encountered on the job from the male relatives and friends of the White women who employed them as domestic workers.
Describing her experience as a member of the “paper bag brigade” Cooke wrote: “I took up my stand in front of Woolworth’s in the early chill of a December morning. Other women began to gather shortly afterwards. Backs pressed to the store window, paper bags clutched in their hands, they stared bleakly, blankly, into the street. I lost my identity entirely. I was a member of the ‘paper bag brigade’. Local housewives stalked the line we had unconsciously formed, picked out the most likely ‘slaves’, bargained with them and led them off down the street.”
We owe women like Baker and Cooke who documented the abuse of African-American women in New York during the 1930s a debt of gratitude because without their work this history would not be available for us to read today.
IWD is also supposed to address the absence of women from the history books. While White women’s history may have been relegated to the margins of the history books, African women’s history is usually in the footnotes or entirely absent.
As I read the theme for this year’s IWD celebration, “Inspiring Change”, I could not help thinking about the numerous African women who have inspired change. The history of those women has been researched and documented by our historians including Dr. Afua Cooper who published a book about Marie Joseph Angelique (The Hanging of Angelique 2006) and Natasha Henry who has written an article about Chloe Cooley (http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/chloe-cooley-and-the-act-to-limit-slavery-in-upper-canada/). Books about other African Canadian women who inspired change have also been written including “Sister to Courage” about the life of Viola Desmond published in 2010 by her younger sister Wanda Robinson; the 1998 published “Mary Ann Shadd Cary: The Black Press and Protest in the Nineteenth Century” by Jane Rhodes and “Sylvia Stark: A Pioneer” by Alfred Ernest Jones, Torie Scott and Karen Lewis published in 1991. There are many more African Canadian women who inspired change and who we remember for their unstinting work to bring about change. Some of those names are Rosemary Brown, Sherona Hall, Peggy Pompadour, Lucie Blackburn, Carrie Best, Rose Fortune and Portia White.
African women from elsewhere in the Diaspora and from the continent have also contributed to “inspiring change” and some of the names include, Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana, Nana Yaa Asantewa, Queen Nzingha, Rosa Parks, Fanny Mae Hamer, Ida Bell Wells-Barnett and Sojourner Truth.
On March 8, International Women’s Day, let us ensure that our story is included in women’s history and the names of our sheroes are recognized as having contributed to “inspiring change” internationally.