By: Mary Jo Iozzio
“Look for the union label when you are buying that coat, dress, or blouse. Remember somewhere our union’s sewing, our wages going to feed the kids and run the house.” This International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) song, penned by an ILGWU member for the 1975 Christmas buying season, recalls an earlier time when unions were the principal organizing means to protect worker rights and, in particular, the rights of women laborers. Many of the first-generation American women of my family were garment workers in the early twentieth century, each card-carrying members of ILGWU, which joined others to form the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE) in 1995 and the Hotel and Restaurant Employees (UNITE HERE) in 2004. Our mothers and aunts were empowered by their earnings and together they inspired us, their fourteen daughters of twenty-eight children, to find our potentials through education and skills training. Along with our fathers and uncles, they encouraged us by their love, resources, and moral support to pursue our hopes, to flourish, and to nurture the next generation of daughters and sons likewise.
The connection? International Women’s Day commemorates the March 8, 1857 protest of New York City women garment workers against inhumane working conditions and poor wages, leading to their first labor union in 1859 and galvanizing national and international movements for women’s rights. On March 8, 1908 women garment workers again marched in New York City demanding better pay, shorter work hours, and an end to child labor; in May 1908 the Socialist Party of America called for observance of a National Women’s Day, which, by 1911 and generally uninterrupted since, has been marked annually by rallies –attended by women, men, and children—throughout the US, Canada, and Europe. In 1975, the UN General Assembly adopted International Women’s Day to recognize women’s contributions worldwide and to advocate for women’s participation in the work of peace, security, and social progress.
In the US, International Women’s Day grew into Women’s History Week by proclamation of President Jimmy Carter (1980) and, after many states expanded the initiative, in 1987 Congress and Presidential Proclamation declared March in perpetuity thenceforth as Women’s History Month. A single day or week to recognize the contributions of women to the nation and around the globe is an important albeit insufficient step toward liberation. A month offers something more yet it too falls short of the full integration and establishment of equality for women across the diverse, multiple, and overlapping arenas of human commerce. Consider, women constitute half of the workforce overall, providing the primary support for 40% of US families reflecting employment access, yet their pay lags behind their male counterparts by .23 on the dollar: income inequity. Similarly, despite the increasing number of women in the theological guild and the deliberate efforts of faculty members to cultivate their women students’ interest in the profession and Church showing the promise of integration, their participation in ecclesial leadership remains veiled: sanctioned continued inequality.
International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month remind us to be deliberate in advocacy of, for, and with women and girls locally, nationally, and worldwide. From the Moroccan teen Amina Filali who committed suicide just months after she was forced to marry her rapist … to the tens of thousands of Indian women and girls abducted or sold into sex, labor, and sporting venue traffic … to the alarmingly “common” intimate partner violence in the US, greater advocacy in respect of women and girls can change their vulnerability to despair and premature death to experiences of hope and human flourishing. The UN Millennium Development Goals urge this advocacy in challenging the world community, nations, and individuals to “promote gender equity and empower women” primarily through ever greater access to education at all levels. Close to a panacea, education makes way to safe(r) and more meaningful work, enables women to speak truth to power, reduces coercive dependency, opens opportunities for social participation, and unlocks paths to leadership in setting agendas conducive to women’s comprehensive enfranchisement. We can advocate better for women in supporting and creating these opportunities.
One way to so advocate is by exposing the theologies that present women as less than their male counterparts and then develop a spirited, embodied, and robust theology not of “the woman” as other/distinct except as she and her sisters are reckoned with their brothers as another instance of God’s own creatively engendered diversity incarnate throughout humankind.