Why Do We Celebrate International Women’s Day?
Every 8th of March people around the world gather to “celebrate” International Women’s Day. But like many other celebrations, such as Christmas or Thanksgiving, people rarely stop to think about the reasons why they do it.
International Women’s Day has been misunderstood for so long as a celebration of “womanhood,” dipped in roses and chocolates on our office desk. However, more than a celebration, the 8th of March is a day that commemorates the bravery of women garment workers that stood for their right to reasonable working hours, decent working conditions, and fair compensation. It is a day that should propel us to examine what has been achieved so far in terms of gender equity and what we still have yet to do.
This commemoration came about after a long history of mistreatment from factory owners towards workers, that resulted in a series of strikes. On March 8th of 1834, for example, the Lowell Girls protested against pay cuts in a system that already paid them a horrifying 3 dollars for an 80 hour week. They were credited with being able to cap the workday at 10 hours because of their strikes.
Years later, in 1909, the conditions had not improved. In New York, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory employed around 500 people, mostly Italian and Jewish immigrants, in unsafe buildings, under long working hours. Tired of the terrible conditions and harassment, the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, alongside the National Women's Trade Union League of America led a massive strike that would result in, among other things, a 52 hour work week, four paid holidays, and union recognition. Wins that all of us, not just women, have benefited from to this day.
Unfortunately, even with these victories, the owners of the factory refused to make improvements to the building. In 1911 a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Its fire escapes, stairs, and doors were not made for mobility. On the contrary, the doors were deliberately narrow to ensure every single worker was searched because the owners were afraid they would steal. And the doors to stairways were locked to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks. 146 people died in that fire; 123 were women and 23 were men.
This is the sort of tragedy that we look back upon on the 8th of March, to see how far we may have come or how much things have stayed the same in terms of gender equity and labor. But most importantly to set actions that can make for a safer world for women and girls.
What does this have to do with the fashion industry?
The people at the furthest end of our fashion supply chains, the ones that sustain the engine, who are actually making the garments, tend to be 80% women, usually black, indigenous, or South Asian, according to the Worker Rights Consortium.
These women face verbal, physical, and sexual abuse from their male managers in order to reach to a certain amount of production. They also have to work insane hours, in unsafe buildings. Finally, they are kept in poverty through nimble compensation, made possible by unregulated markets.
Does this sound similar to what happened in the Shirt Waste Factory? That’s because it is. In 2022, sweatshop labor has not yet been eradicated and, unfortunately, it disproportionately affects women and results in gender-based violence. Why does this keep happening today? Because this abuse is not a fluke in the system. It is the way the system is designed to work.
The fashion industry is built upon the notion of exponential growth as the ultimate goal, which has meant cutting down costs of human labor in the supply chain, especially in the production of raw materials and manufacturing of goods, to create profit for its owners, according to Teju Adisa-Farrar for Slow Factory. And it so happens that in such an engine “most managers are men who hire women to work, with the widespread belief that women are more docile and work longer hours for little pay,” says to the non-profit ReMake.
This sexist belief that women are more submissive has led to justifying abuse and is not new. The global south became an attractive location not only because of the cheap and unregulated labor but also because the “available labor force was represented in racially gendered and sexualized terms as docile and easily controllable. Local and global governments represented poor women of color as naturally suited for the demanding ‘unskilled’ work of apparel production by emphasizing their nimble fingers and their compliant dispositions” according to Minh-Ha T. Pham, for Slow Factory. By characterizing women as such, it is no wonder that dehumanizing them came easily.
But not all is lost. The fact that the fashion industry employs mostly women, means it has a vast capacity to enact change in their lives if it changes its ways.
What is Beckett Simonon doing?
At Beckett Simonon, we strive to create a just and safe environment both in our headquarters and within the workplaces of our artisan partners. To this end, we strive to make sure that there is an equal representation and fair compensation. And have recently started to look into further causes into the challenges women face within the operation.
Below, we have gathered some stats that can paint a picture of where we are at in terms of representation and wages:
In terms of our composition, in the HQ, 50% of the team members are women, and two out of three management positions are occupied by women: the Art Director and the Office Manager. All of our team memebers have undergone trainings in gender issues and intersectionality.
All of the studios we collaborate with are each owned by a woman and a man, such as Paola and Jeisson, from the sneakers workshop, or Flor Alba Galeano and Hector Quintero, from the accessories studio. If you want to get to know them better, you can check this previous article
In the accessories studio, there are 80% women and 20% men. Of the supervisors, four are women and three are men. The salaries are based not only on the role they play but also the years they have been with the company.
In the dress shoes and boots studio, there are 44% women and 56% men. There are three supervisors, one woman, and two men. The workers’ salary is determined by the role they play, but also by seniority in the company. For example, the female supervisor earns more than the men because she’s been with the company longer.
In the sneakers workshop, 20% of the artisans are women, who earn the same as their male counterparts.
Speaking with the owners of both the dress shoes and sneakers studios, it seems that women tend to go for the trade of finishers or assemblers, not so much for mounters or cutters. When asked why, they said it is usually women who have experience in those detail-oriented roles and men who tend to have more experience in roles that require heavy leather lifting, like cutting or mounting. They also said that it does not mean that they haven’t hired women cutters, or mounters, it means there are fewer in those disciplines.
What Can You Do About It?
When we look at these structural issues we tend to feel there is nothing we can do, but as citizens, we can always have an impact, the following are some ideas of how we can contribute to women’s and girls lives being safe and fulfilling:
- Organize an event to celebrate International Women’s Day (see their website for ideas).
- Question your own ideas of gender in your daily life
- Donate your time, skills, or money to an organization doing the work to make a difference, like the Garment Worker Center, PayUP Fashion, Labour Behind the Label, or the National Indigenous Women's Resource Center.
- Follow, read and support BIPOC women in the responsible fashion movement like Aja Barber, Adity Mayer, Dominique Drake Ford, or Teju Adisa Farrar.
- Watch documentaries or listen to podcasts on the subject.
- Contact your representatives or support bills that protect women’s rights, in a manner that puts special emphasis on underprivileged women.
- Support, encourage and empower the girls and women in your life to be the best they can be.
What actions have you taken or want to take in your daily lives to strive for gender equality? Tell us on the comments below. We love to learn with you.
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