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Smash the Patriarchy

Guest Column
Brice Smith

Today is International Women’s Day (IWD). If you have never heard of it, you are not alone. Sparked by events in this country, IWD has been consistently marginalized and relegated to the fringes of history. Born in a time of great social unrest, IWD was founded to promote the international solidarity of women fighting to end the social, political, and sexual domination of men. The story of this day is the continuation of centuries of struggle. Over the years, on IWD people have taken to the streets, sparked a revolution, met politely with politicians, demonstrated outside newspapers and welfare institutions, occupied empty buildings, and helped usher in much needed legislation. Although there has been much progress to celebrate, we are still far from living in this world as equals and there are many terrible injustices left to fight.

Before we begin to look forward to the coming struggles, however, it is useful to first look back and learn from those who have fought for the progress we’ve made so far. Throughout the 1800s, women began to enter industry in large numbers. Their jobs were primarily sex-segregated with most working in textiles, manufacturing, and domestic services. These women worked in extremely unhealthy, dangerous conditions for wages even worse than for their male counterparts. In this climate, it was women who bore the triple burden of exploitation by the factory owners, of having no voice in the government, and of the attacks by many male workers and sexist unions that feared the competition women represented. It was Lucy Parsons, the radical multi-racial anarcho-feminist, who summed up the condition of women in the six simple words: “We are the slaves of slaves.” Repression could not, however, stop those fighting against these evils. It was in this time that the women’s suffrage movement grew throughout the world and radical unions sought to organize women.

On March 8, 1857, women staged a mass protest in New York and were attacked by the police. Two years later, these women formed their first labor union to try to secure some basic protections. In 1903, the Women’s Trade Union League was created in the U.S. to help organize all working women. Like the smaller unions before it, this union focused not only on the economic exploitation of women, but also on securing political equality. In February 1908, socialist women in the United States initiated the first Women’s Day with large demonstrations demanding the right to vote and the economic equality of women. The following February, tens of thousands of people attended Women’s Day rallies. In 1910, the idea of a Women’s Day was taken up throughout the country. Realizing that gender oppression is a global problem and must be dealt with accordingly, the U.S. delegates to the second International Conference of Socialist Women in Copenhagen proposed that Women’s Day become an international day of action. Inspired by the U.S. women, Carla Zetkin, one of the most influential socialist-feminist thinkers of all time, proposed a resolution to the conference which was unanimously approved by the over 100 women in attendance from 17 countries. Thus International Women’s Day was born. The first IWD was held on March 19, 1911 in Germany, Austria, Denmark, and Switzerland. March 19 was chosen because on that date in 1848, the Prussian king, faced with an armed uprising, had promised (but never delivered) universal suffrage. More that a million leaflets were distributed throughout Germany before that first IWD. In addition to the right to vote and hold public office, they demanded the right to work, vocational training, and an end to discrimination on the job. In the following years, IWD rallies were held throughout Europe to protest nationalism, jingoism, and the coming world war.

Arguably the most important International Women’s Day ever occurred in March 1917. With nearly 2 million Russian soldiers dead in the war, Russian women chose to strike for “bread and peace.” Political leaders opposed the timing of the strike, but the women went ahead anyway. Gathering strength as they swept through the streets of Petrograd, the women’s march sparked several days of food riots, political strikes, and mass demonstrations. With their act of bravery and defiance, these women launched the first Russian Revolution of 1917. Four days after their march, the Czar was forced to abdicate and the provisional government granted women the right to vote. Since then, IWD has seen many victories and defeats. It was not until 1975, however, that IWD was given official recognition by the United Nations thus earning it credibility in many governments who had previously chosen to ignore its existence.

Clearly, there has been much progress earned as a result of these struggles, but we have much work left before us. One has only to hear of the terror campaign against women that makes us all live with the fact that more than one in four women will be the victim of rape or sexual assault in her life to realize just how far we have left to go. Thus, I have come to agree with those women who helped create International Women’s Day all those years ago, that we must use today to rededicate ourselves and to fight for a day when “we may eventually and forever stamp out the last vestige of male egotism and his desire to dominate over women.”

Given this deep history of struggle, pain, and celebration, look around today and see how many newspapers or TV shows even mention International Women’s Day. As you read this, thousands of people march in other countries demanding an end to the system of male domination while as a country we sit silently by. This day will not pass totally unrecognized for us at MIT though. In honor of all who have taken up the fight, there will be “Smash the Patriarchy” events throughout the day in the Student Center. I urge everyone to think long and hard about the ways in which gender oppression diminishes all of our lives and to stop by the Student Center to learn more and get involved. It is only by our collective acceptance that sexual harassment, eating disorders, domestic violence, sexual assault, rape, and all the other systems of gender oppression are capable of continuing. It is up to every one of us, male and female, straight and LGBT, old and young, to come together and build a world in which no one feels unsafe and we are all allowed to define who we are for ourselves. It is only then that any of us will truly be free.

Brice Smith G is a graduate student in the Department of Physics.