The History Of Women’s Strikes In America Is The History Of Fashion In America

However you plan to observe this Wednesday’s International Women’s Day, remember the garment workers who lived and died for women’s rights

On Wednesday, January’s record-setting Women’s March will have a chance at a second act. On March 8, International Women’s Day is set to become an international women’s strike, as women in at least 30 countries have committed to abstain from labor, paid or otherwise. Though debate has raged over the perceived privilege of being able to strike for women’s rights, the initial statement released to The Guardian from a group of female activists and academics is an explicit challenge to the norms set by corporate feminism:

“Women’s conditions of life, especially those of women of color and of working, unemployed, and migrant women, have steadily deteriorated over the last 30 years, thanks to financialization and corporate globalization.

Lean-in feminism and other variants of corporate feminism have failed the overwhelming majority of us, who do not have access to individual self-promotion and advancement and whose conditions of life can be improved only through policies that defend social reproduction, secure reproductive justice, and guarantee labor rights. As we see it, the new wave of women’s mobilization must address all these concerns in a frontal way. It must be a feminism for the 99 percent.”

In New York, this statement will no doubt be echoed at the strike’s accompanying rallies, to be held in Washington Square Park and Central Park. Just one block away from Washington Square Park's eastern edge is the site of another strike, an incident 106 years in our past that still acts as a mirror to our present. The building at 23-29 Washington Place is now known as the Brown Building, and it is a part of NYU’s Silver Center for Arts and Sciences. But a century ago, the structure was synonymous with the company that occupied its eighth, ninth, and tenth floors. In those days, it was called the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

Though the Triangle Waist Company has passed into oblivion along with the progressivist generation, the fashion industry that grew up out of the factory’s strikes remains. If the women’s strike this week is an attempt to forge a new path for feminist action, we can see proof of this future’s viability in our industrial past, even as we track how the feminist movement was once led astray from the effort to reform women’s work. Women have staffed the garment industry from the start of the Industrial Revolution into the present. In America, the history of fashion is inseparable from the history of women’s labor.

Established in 1900, the Triangle Waist Company was owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, a pair of Russian-Jewish immigrants who pooled their resources and expertise to establish their own garment-manufacturing company. At the time, New York City supported over 11,000 companies devoted to the production of clothing, making it the garment capital of the United States. In the span of less than a decade, Blanck and Harris conquered the industry. They used their own backgrounds as former garment workers to anticipate the direction of the emergent fashion industry, purchasing mechanical sewing machines, moving their operations out of tenements and into the high-rise at Washington Square, and centering their business around the production of shirtwaists — which were themselves a manifestation of Industrial Age values. Mass-producible, cheap, and interchangeable, shirtwaists could be embellished as a show of elevated class, but they were favored by working-class women because their roomy tailoring made physical labor easier to undertake 1. For women working in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the theoretical line that usually separates producer from consumer became a loop. When Blanck and Harris's factory caught fire in the infamous blaze of 1911, their workers died wearing the garments they sewed.

At the time, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was the worst industrial disaster in American history, claiming the lives of 146 people, 123 of whom were women. The horror was not the preventability of the disaster, but the predictability. Only a year before, the women who powered the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory organized a walkout of tens of thousands of garment workers in an attempt to improve the conditions of the factory, where it was common practice for seamstresses to work over 10-hour days, the doors were locked from the outside to prevent workers from interrupting productivity, scraps of cotton 2 piled high despite the threat of fire, and the daily wage was barely enough to live on. A year before the fire, Triangle Shirtwaist Factory employees sought entry into the emergent International Ladies’ Garment Workers' Union. Meetings were held in English and Yiddish to accommodate the largely immigrant workforce. Their slogan? “We’d rather starve quick than starve slow.”

In America, the history of fashion is inseparable from the history of women’s labor.

But as women of New York’s working class fought for bread and roses, middle-class and wealthy women were engaging in a parallel movement to secure the right to vote. The suffragettes were looking for ways to galvanize support around the civic concerns they identified as the feminist cause, and though garment workers were more likely to identify with socialism and anarchy than the bourgeois feminism of the suffragettes, the size of the garment workers’ walkout inspired overtures at cross-class collaboration.

The needs of working-class women soon proved to be as contentious among the suffragettes as the needs of black women were a generation before. When factory workers demanded a closed shop — an arrangement in which employers could only hire union workers — the support of wealthy women deteriorated. Without finances to fund a lengthy campaign, the women of New York’s largest garment companies had little choice but to return to work. Managers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory conceded to higher wages, but the union demand was unmet, and without the union contract, safety standards went unenforced. It would take the sight of dozens of charred bodies strewn across Manhattan sidewalks for a union to receive recognition.

This week, the women’s strike will march right past the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. For strikers, this convergence is an opportunity to consider the consequences of a feminism disconnected from the lived experience of women’s labor. Progressivist movements were once concerned with maintaining standards for workers exposed to the new ills of industrialization, and in the present day, our challenge is to create political movements that speak not only to our civic ideals, but to our material realities. Without introspection and intersectionality, feminism risks becoming lip service paid to a gendered equality that might not be worth aspiring to when considered within a larger social framework.

If we use the fashion industry as an example of the realities faced by a female-dominated workforce, if the ideals of feminism are endorsed independent of our global economy, corporations are able to cut corners through outsourcing — as was the case in the Rana Plaza collapse 3, which resulted in the deaths of over 1,000 workers just four years ago.

In a feminism independent of domestic immigration policy, today’s immigrant garment workers are forced to choose between abysmal working conditions and the possibility of deportation if they risk raising attention through protest. By endorsing feminism as a civic and intellectual movement independent of our material consumption, women’s fast fashion has produced an environmental crisis on par with adding 7.3 million cars to the road every year. In a feminism independent of intersectionality, the wage gap between men and women is compounded by racial inequality between white women and black and Hispanic women. In a feminism independent of union participation, millions of women find themselves stuck in short-term retail jobs with companies like Wal-Mart Stores, which resist unions as a way to avoid accountability for employee benefits or long-term financial stability.

As we each face the individual decision to participate in this week’s protests, the women’s strike is an opportunity to consider what institutions we unconsciously withdraw from when we consciously withdraw from work. Strikes are — and always have been — an opportunity for workers to challenge the structures that profit from their labor, but for consumers, strikes are a corresponding reminder of the unseen costs of consumption. As women, participating in this week’s strike is a chance to observe the side effects of participating in the American labor force. As feminists, it is a chance to tinker with a social prescription.

Additional research by Liz Raiss

A direct reaction to the constricting nature of Victorian-era clothing, shirtwaists were styled after menswear, and more affordable than traditional womenswear. At $3 each, the Triangle Waist Company’s shirtwaists were priced moderately in the highly competitive market. The shirtwaists were simple garments meant to be tucked into a skirt waistband without necessitating additional outerwear, but they were also endlessly customizable. Unique ruffles, collars, buttons, and other small details could, for a higher price, elevate the working women's shirtwaist to a fashion statement.

While high-quality shirtwaists could be made of silk, linen, or even taffeta, the kind the Triangle Waist Company workers wore and produced were almost always cotton.

Rana Plaza was an eight-story building containing factories which employed approximately 5,000 workers. At the time, Bangladesh was the second largest exporter of readymade garments in the world, and the factories of Rana Plaza produced clothing for a number of high-profile American brands, including Wal-Mart Stores, Mango, Joe Fresh, and Benetton. The day before the collapse, cracks were noted on the outer facade of the building, and Rana Plaza was evacuated. The building's owner, Sohel Rana, said that an engineer had pronounced the structure safe and directed workers to return to the plaza the next day. 1,129 were killed. The Accord on Factory and Building Safety was a legally binding agreement meant to prevent the recurrence of a similar disaster. Retailers like H&M, Marks and Spencer, and Benetton signed, while Wal-Mart Stores, Gap, Macy’s, and 14 other major U.S. companies declined to do the same. Many companies that refused to sign the accord chose instead to effect their own safety standards, which were criticized for their relative leniency. In 2013, one of Wal-Mart Stores’ six factories in Bangladesh failed safety reviews.