How did it all begin?
March 8 is International Women's Day, a day celebrated around the world. Origins of this special day for women go back to the turn of the century, when, in 1908, garment workers in the United States were struggling for social equality and justice.
It was a crucial point in the history of trade unions and the women's rights movement in the U.S., a struggle that ultimately gave birth to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
On Sunday, February 27, 1909, women needleworkers held a mass demonstration on New York's Lower East Side. Twenty-five thousand people came together to protest the long hours and deplorable and dangerous working conditions in the factories. This is the first recorded instance of working women getting together around their concerns.
A year later, at an International Conference of Socialist Women, held in Copenhagen and attended by more than 100 women from 17 countries, March 8 was declared International Women's Day. It was the result of a resolution submitted by Clara Zetkin, a German socialist and leader of the women's movement in the German parliament.
Naming this day "International Women's Day" symbolizes the worldwide struggle of women for the basic needs of life. This is an important part of our heritage, making connections between women's rights, peace, the elimination of poverty, racism and all forms of discrimination all over the world.
Although International Women's Day is celebrated in many countries, only in the last two decades has its observance been revived in the United States. With the launching of the U.N. Decade for Women in 1975, the day was given official recognition by the United Nations to honor the global connections among all women.
March is the month we write women back into history. Why is this necessary?
History, as traditionally recorded and interpreted in accordance with patriarchal values, has been the story of men and their activities. One could properly call it "his story." It is usually the story of the military and political exploits of men--who has won, who has lost, who has acquired land, power, wealth, and who has been defeated.
Women have been invisible--barely figuring in the story, except, perhaps, as members of families or relatives of important men. Women have generally been portrayed as passive nonparticipants, perpetuating stereotypical images.
Yet we know that every event in history was made possible only by the activities of both men and women, for women are half of humankind.
We know that women shared equally in the hardships connected with the settling of the United States. Struggling to gain an existence from the new land, they had little time for anything other than their families, their religion and their work. They were there, but their stories were missing from our history books. In rewriting history now, historians are unearthing these missing women, restoring them to their proper places and giving us a more complete and true picture of the important roles they played.
The idea of celebrating women's history was initiated in the mid-'70s. The grassroots push for this special observance rose up through the schools in Sonoma County, California, then through city and county governments, state legislatures and governors, to the Congress of the United States.
In 1981, the U.S. Senate officially proclaimed National Women's History Week, calling on all Americans to hold programs of education and celebration of the role of women in history. The "week" soon became a month--testament to its success in catching the imagination of educators, historians, community participants and school children in an amazingly brief span of time.
To this end I would like to acknowledge a few of the many women who have contributed to our history. One could say each account is "her story."
Sappho: Poet (c. 615-580 B.C.)
In strong contrast to most of the renowned male lyricists of antiquity, with their epic quests and warrior culture, stands Sappho, the only woman of their rank whose work has come down to our age.
Although only a handful of fragmentary poems by Sappho have been found to date, there shines in them the frank, direct and unapologetic voice that is her signature. Aside from the timeless beauty of her verse, Sappho stands uniquely among the first poets to turn the epic quest inward to the personal, subjective self.
Lucy Stone: Suffragist, Reformer (1818-1893)
Lucy Stone's feelings about slavery were ultimately connected to a concern for universal justice: "I expect to plead not for the slave only, but for suffering humanity everywhere. Especially do I mean to labor for the elevation of my sex."
In the pantheon of American feminist foremothers, Stone is best remembered as the principal leader of the "conservative," more politically pragmatic wing of the suffrage movement that sought to counterbalance the more radical, intellectually eclectic Elizabeth Cady Stanton-Susan B. Anthony contingent. The division split the national suffrage movement for 20 years. Stanton saw the schism as more regrettable than did Stone, who regarded it as a natural phase in the movement's political maturation.
Stone is also remembered as among the first and most prominent women to keep her maiden name when she married reformer Henry Blackwell (thereafter calling herself Mrs. Lucy Stone). On taking their vows, the couple issued a famous joint statement protesting the crippling legal effects of marriage on women.
Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Diplomat, Author (1868-1926)
Born to a wealthy and prominent English family, Bell was among the first women in Britain to gain access to higher education. She became attracted to the Middle East while visiting relatives of her stepmother in Teheran. She taught herself Persian and published a book of travel sketches about that country. She later wrote a translation of the "Poems of the Divan of Hafiz."
In 1899, she chronicled her journeys as she traveled around the Dead Sea and Syria; through Asia Minor, Baghdad and Turkey; around excavations of Byzantine sites; and along the Euphrates River. She was the first European woman to have seen many of these regions.
In 1915, Bell was tapped by the British government for the first of several diplomatic posts, which took her initially to Basra and then to Baghdad. While her increasing support for Arab independence often put her at odds with her superiors, Bell came to be a highly influential diplomat and political analyst. Her liaison efforts between the British and the peoples of the region proved crucial in the delicate political transitions that took place in the years following World War I.
Wangari Maathai: Environmentalist, Political Activist (b.1940)
"The myth of male superiority can only be demolished with shining examples of female achievement against which nobody could argue intelligently."
When Kenyan biologist Wangari Maathai founded the grassroots reforestation project known as the Green Belt Movement in 1975, helping to restore her country's devastated natural environment was only part of her goal. She also sought to unleash the energies of rural women and foster improved self-image among them.
In its first 15 years, the Green Belt Movement succeeded dramatically at both: it planted more than 10-million trees, employed more than 50,000 women, and became one of the most effective and acclaimed environmental movements in the world.
Her activism grew, and she successfully led a protest against the destruction of forest to provide land to cultivate roses for export. Despite being evicted from her office and subjected to all manner of harassment and threats, she continued to fight, ultimately triumphing when investors withdrew their support from the project.
Maathai continues her efforts in both the environmental and socio-political spheres. While denounced as a traitor and subversive at home, Maathai is one of the most respected figures of the environmental movement worldwide and has received numerous awards and honors for her visionary and courageous work.
Marcia L. Mason is a Quaker, peace activist, world citizen, and World Syntegrity Project alumna who lives in Burlington, Vermont.