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International Women's Day, Women's Strikes, and the

International Women's Day, Women's Strikes, and the "Mink Brigade"

Part I

This year, on International Women's Day, the organization behind the recent Women's Marches is calling on women around the world to protest by taking an absence from work, avoiding shopping (except with independent women- and minority-owned shops - like Persistent Sisters!) or by wearing red to stand in solidarity on what they are calling "A Day Without A Woman". (Visit this link for more info.)

"Women and our allies will act together for equity, justice and the human rights of women and all gender-oppressed people, through a one-day demonstration of economic solidarity." (WomensMarch.com)

In addition, there are some who are calling for a bit more commitment: an International Women's Strike. Inviting women around the world to participate, the call to action hopes to bring attention to unfair wages, gender inequality, racism, oppression, and more. (Visit this link for more info.)

"In the spirit of solidarity and internationalism, in the United States March 8th will be a day of action organized by and for women who have been marginalized and silenced by decades of neoliberalism directed towards working women, women of color, Native women, disabled women, immigrant women, Muslim women, lesbian, queer and trans women." (Womenstrikeus.org)

It's been suggested in several op-ed columns and Twitter comments that these actions will be nothing more than a "Day Without Privileged Women", in that only those wealthy, privileged protesters can or will be able to actually take the day off. And that may be fair, really - I mean it isn't particularly realistic to expect the average Jane to be able to stay home from work in silent (and perhaps unnoticed?) protest. Personally, I will be here at my studio, as co-owner of Persistent Sisters, working as usual to support myself and my partner. No posters, no pink hats, just... business as usual. If I don't work, the bills don't get paid! I know most of you can identify with that.

But this idea is bigger than current politics, bigger than white/cis/American privilege, and bigger than the 1%... and it shouldn't be overlooked as a valuable tool. 

I'm reminded of the infamous "Mink Brigade" - a group of wealthy women in early 1900's America who were active, vocal supporters of striking garment workers. One of these women was Anne Morgan: an uber-wealthy socialite and philanthropist turned union activist. She and her fancy friends stood in picket lines, aided strikers financially, and gave a louder voice to their cause. Dubbed the "Mink Brigade" by way of insult and mockery, in the end their solidarity with the workers helped bring attention to the deplorable conditions in places like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (which would come to fame not only for the numerous strikes of it's workers, but its deadly fire in 1911.)

Anne Morgan, Mink Brigade
Anne Morgan with a fancy dog: the picture of privilege?

Morgan held a number of women's meetings at her home to discuss how to improve the lives of working women. At one such meeting, Florence Harriman (another wealthy and well-connected socialite of the day turned activist) stated: 

"Should not the woman who spends the money which the employees help to provide, take a special interest in their welfare especially in that of the women wage earners?" (New York Times, March 7th, 1908)*

These women, while surely among the most privileged of their time, might have been unwilling to make true enemies of their fellow socialites who owned the very businesses that oppressed the workers - but they saw the influence they could effect, and they used their position to help in ways that could not have been possible through simple street protests and strikes. This cross-class cooperation was effective, and we should be leveraging it today to continue the fight for equality in this country, and around the world.

The point here being - if women of privilege are the only ones who can afford to stand up and "strike" on this International Women's Day, then I say let them stand. Let's not deride the well-meaning efforts of those who may have more money and power than us, but instead welcome their desire to help, to empathize, and to stand with those who suffer the most in whatever way they can.

Yes we - in America especially - often live in a world that is unattainable by so many. Yes, those who live comfortably are often guilty of not understanding "how the other half lives." But is that a reason to mock them or denounce their actions? Doing so only serves to divide us - and that is the last thing we need. No, we need to stand together at all costs - no matter our political persuasion or bank balance or color of our skin or our gender identity. We must stand together in whatever way we can - and if that means taking a vacation day from a well paying job, or wearing red with the ladies at the club - well, I'll take it. Together, our voices are stronger.

Bring on the Mink Brigade.

Part II

 The Uprising of the Twenty Thousands
(Dedicated to the Waistmakers, circa 1909)
[From "Let's Sing!", Educational Department,
International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, New York City, N.D.]

In the black of the winter of nineteen nine,
When we froze and bled on the picket line,
We showed the world that women could fight
And we rose and won with women's might.

Chorus:
Hail the waistmakers of nineteen nine,
Making their stand on the picket line,
Breaking the power of those who reign,
Pointing the way, smashing the chain.
And we gave new courage to the men
Who carried on in nineteen ten
And shoulder to shoulder we'll win through,
Led by the I.L.G.W.U.

Though the participation of the of the Mink Brigade did provide financial support and garner publicity for the garment workers, it was the workers themselves that truly set the precedent for this year’s “A Day Without a Woman.” And, despite the primarily male leadership of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (“ladies” refers to the type of garment, not the type of worker), it was the resolve and bravery of a woman that led to the industry wide strike, known as the “Uprising of 20,000.”

Clara Lemlich, born in 1886 in the Ukraine, immigrated with her family to the United States in 1903. Clara, like many female immigrants, found work in a garment factory in the Lower East Side of New York. The working conditions were intolerable, and Clara, at only 17, quickly saw the need to form a female chapter of the ILGWU, an idea that henceforth had been frowned upon by the male leadership. Called “the fiery girls,” Clara led the chapter in several strikes between 1907-1909. She was arrested 17 times, and even returned to a picket line with broken ribs after a beating by hired thugs. I would call that persistence!

Clara Lemlich
Clara Lemlich, as she will appear in an upcoming edition of
Persistent Sisters Trading Cards

On November 22, 1909, a mass meeting of the ILGWU was convened at Cooper Union in New York to garner support for the striking garment workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist and Leiserson Companies. After listening to one male leader after another speak without a real call to action, Clara asked for a turn. She was lifted onto the platform, and her words rallied the audience. She declared:

"I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. I make a motion that we go out in a general strike."

The assembly voted to strike, and over the next few days, 20,000 of the approximately 32,000 garment workers walked out of their factories. The strike lasted until February of 1910, and, with the exception of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, resulted in an arbitrated settlement and improvements in wages, conditions and hours.

It's been a long time since the days of the industrial revolution and the first rally cries of labor unions across the globe, but today we still have progress to be made in many areas of human rights. 
Whether you are a worker in a minimum wage job or a member of a "Mink Brigade", we hope that on this International Women's Day, you will find a moment to stand up, to speak out, and to be persistent in whatever way you can.

Together we are all #PersistentSisters!


*For more great reading on Anne Morgan and her fellow activists, see "Anne Morgan and the Shirtwaist Strike of 1909-1910" by Joseph Portanova in "The Price of Fashion".