The passing of Mary Tyler Moore, the unwitting feminist icon of 1970s working women, is a poignant reminder that sustaining the momentum of the Women’s March will require something Mary captured so well — that special mix of humor and chutzpah, essential to expanding acceptance of new cultural norms. The pink hats that dotted the crowds were a good start on capturing that mix.
Just being immersed in a twenty-square block ocean of pink hats atop the heads of upbeat, determined women and their supporters buoyed my soul!
The Women’s March on Washington was by far the largest demonstration I’ve ever joined — and I’ve joined many over the years. What made the Women’s March even more inspiring was the fact that it spanned the globe. At least 3 million people marched on Saturday in the U.S. alone and hundreds of thousands more hit the streets internationally, sending a powerful message to misogynists everywhere. If accompanied by sustained organizing, this global solidarity can build the kinds of social movements that lead to real change. We can recapture the grassroots power of women workers marching in New York in 1909 who inspired International Women’s Day, which is now celebrated on March 8th around the globe. Within two years of that march, IWD was being celebrated by over a million people marching throughout Europe.
So what’s next? How do we leverage this momentum for women’s rights?
For those of us working with women workers worldwide we are painfully aware that the misogyny we stood up to on Saturday is a real and present danger for too many of our sisters everywhere.
Women-dominated industries, like apparel production and domestic work, have long paid poverty level wages and limited workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively to improve their lives and those of their children.
“Women workers are silenced, in the factories and at home, through violence or the threats of violence, by means of fear — of being abused at work, of losing our jobs. We face sexual harassment. We are told we are worthless; we shouldn’t speak; we shouldn’t be leaders.”
-Kalpona Akter, former Bangladeshi apparel worker turned organizer
Today, World Bank experts recognize women’s employment as beneficial to developmentand many export-oriented industries rely on the work ethic of women workers. This reliance on women’s labor has unfortunately not helped diminish the violence against them — at home or at work.
In industries where workers are primarily women, but factory owners and managers are overwhelmingly men, gender is an important aspect of social relations, power and control. In research conducted by my organization, the International Labor Rights Forum, we found that women who complain about sexual harassment, organize to demand better treatment or try to negotiate for a safe and decent workplace risk violent reprisals. Women organizers in Bangladesh have been brutally beaten to the point of hospitalization, and in Cambodia protesting garment workers have been fired on by police.
Violence against women is a global epidemic. According to One Billion Rising, 1 in 3 women across the planet will be beaten or raped during her lifetime. A surprising amount of that violence happens at work. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) reports that more than 40% of European Union women and 30% of Asian women have experienced sexual harassment at work.
This is why we need to sustain the momentum of the Women’s March. We are calling on women everywhere to rise up to stop gender-based violence at work and to demand: safe workplaces, a voice at work, and living wages that ensure equal pay for equal work. Through this campaign, the International Labor Rights Forum is joining with the ITUC, AFL-CIO, our grassroots partners, and many other labor and feminist organizations to advocate for a new International Labour Organization Convention that will specifically address gender-based violence at work and require all United Nations member countries to improve and enforce the laws designed to prevent this violence. With greater awareness and the right legal protections in place, we can turn majority women workplaces to our advantage: into places where women learn to stand up for themselves and each other. Soon enough they’ll be bringing home more than a pay check. They’ll be bringing home the dignity and sense of self they need to stand up to any other aggressors at home or in their communities.