Today is the third Sunday of Lent and also International Women’s Day. We see Jesus the Jewish errant sage on a rampage, throwing the moneychangers out of the temple, an angry Jesus who is acting in a very disagreeable fashion. In our “politically correct” society, we have been brought up to achieve niceness at all costs. We want everyone to love us. This is what society has decreed is the most important thing to achieve, after, of course, amassing money in abundance. But Jesus is knocking over tables and breaking furniture, more than likely using curse words that we don’t associate with this man whom we have been taught is our consoler, and he is spilling precious coins to boot!
We have seen throughout our Lenten meditations that Jesus was anything but a conflict-avoider as we have been taught to be. His public ministry is a ministry of confrontation. If, as we saw last Sunday, we are to obey God’s command to listen to him, we cannot avoid confrontation either. We will have to be up front and center about injustice, and to subvert and disrupt the current situation of our society, where greed is enshrined and Mammon is our God.
International Women’s Day, which this year falls on this third Sunday of Lent, has been celebrated throughout the world for more than a century, and commemorates, among other things, the death of over 146 young female workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of March, 1911. It is not what we make of it in the United States, where it has been mostly ignored; it is not about women’s achievements, or not primarily. Historical data makes it clear that this celebration is very much the story of the work of thousands of women (and men) attempting to obtain better working conditions and the right to “bread and peace,” or “bread and roses.” Let us never forget the sexual strike instigated by Lysistrata in ancient Greece in order to end war, or Parisian women’s march on Versailles to demand women’s right to vote during the French Revolution, to the call of liberty, equality and fraternity.
On March 8, 1857, women from clothing and textile factories held a protest and general strike in New York City against low wages and poor working conditions. They sought a reduction of the working day to ten hours, equal pay for work done, and time off to breastfeed their young. They were attacked and made to disperse by the police, but two years later, also in March, they established their first labor union. More protests followed on March 8 in other years, including 1908 when 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights.
In 1910, the first international women’s conference was held in Copenhagen by the Socialist International and an International Women’s Day established, intended to honor a global movement for women’s rights and suffrage. The conference had over 100 women delegates from 17 countries, and the proposal for an international day of celebration was greeted with unanimous approval. Women’s rights and suffrage was the call of the day. More than a century later, they are yet to be achieved and honored, as they surely should be by now, in every corner of our planet.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company, in New York City, was typical of the sweatshops of the day, herding workers together and forcing them to work long hours under unsanitary and dangerous conditions. In 1909, an incident at the factory had caused 400 employees to walk out. The Women’s Trade Union League, a progressive association of middle class white women, had helped the young women workers picket and fence off thugs and police provocation. At a historic meeting at Cooper Union, thousands of garment workers from all over the city followed young Clara Lemlich’s call for a general strike. A historic agreement established a grievance system. Unfortunately, most of the sweatshops, which then as now employed immigrant workers, were not unionized.
On Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Asch Building where the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was located, and within minutes the factory, locked by the owners so the women could not leave work, had claimed the lives of 146 girls. Girls jumping out of 9th floor windows to their death changed working conditions in New York forever. These girls were mostly Italian, German, Russian and Irish immigrants, aged 15 to 23. The building had only one fire escape and there is no question that the doors leading out of the factory had been locked by the owners of the factory, later acquitted in a criminal trial for the death of the women.
All subsequent IWD celebrations commemorate the senseless death of these young girls. It was made official by the United Nations in 1975. It is vitally important as a day to remember all that has taken place, the struggles, the victories, as well as to take stock of all that must still take place before we can consider ourselves part of a sane, just world.
In 1995 in Beijing, member nations of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women met to come up with guidelines for measuring progress on achieving gender equality. At Beijing +5, in 2000, they met again to review achievements and explore strategies to accelerate action. This year, the 20th year since the Beijing Platform was signed, although much progress has been achieved, there is still much work to be done in areas such as human rights, violence against females, health, unpaid work, poverty and women’s diversity. We should note that our government refused for many years to sign the Platform, although it finally agreed to withdraw an amendment it had required concerning women’s rights to reproductive health services.
Thus, International Women’s Day is the story of all women in the struggle for equal participation in society. At a time when more and more women, in the United States and other countries, live increasingly in poverty, and continue to suffer from unequal working conditions, from sexual discrimination and crimes of violence specifically directed at women, we must all stand together to bring about equal rights and an equal voice to all inhabitants of this planet, no matter their gender or sexual orientation.
Our modern corporate society preys on the weakest in our society, and that includes mothers and their children, the elderly and the disabled. More and more, what little was achieved in earlier days is being taken away in what is probably the largest recent transfer of wealth from the poorest to the richest. The Occupy Movement worldwide brought that out: the 1% versus the 99%. But in our country, using Orwellian doublethink and doublespeak, politicians that were elected to represent all members of the society, engage in orgies of misogynist legislation. We mouth platitudes about the protection of the family, and then deport the strangers among us, whose homelands have been scorched by our military and economic policies. We discriminate, as a nation, as a matter of course.
We are at war everywhere, the new Pax Americana making and selling weapons to all countries, and frequently to both sides in a conflict. We term people fighting for their freedom as terrorists, and have policies and programs, such as those exemplified by the School of the Americas, that target the so-called subversive among us, those who are willing to fight injustice wherever it may appear. Dissent, a cornerstone of our early existence, is daily criminalized.
What would Jesus do? What did he do? He broke the furniture, threw out the merchants of greed, subverted the social order of empire, and was crucified, the punishment meted by the Empire to subverters and revolutionaries, as a consequence of his incredible ministry. I like to think that if he walked the earth today, he would be on strike at Pelican Bay or Guantanamo, or doing time for protesting nuclear weapons. As people of faith, we who were told last Sunday in the transfiguration, that we were to “listen to him,” must stand up and protest our national sins, and they are many. We are not called upon to agree but to disagree. We are not called upon to be nice, but to resist, to object, to shout out or to stand up for human rights and justice, for peace, and today, for women. For today and tomorrow, we must all be our sister’s keeper.
Let us rephrase Donne’s meditation to include women: No woman is an island, entire of herself; every woman is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. (…) Any woman’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in womankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Silvia Antonia Brandon Pérez, Seminarian