March 8 Is International Women's Day: Who or What Inspires You?

International Women's Day, which will celebrate its official centenary in 2011, was born out of women's growing desire for equal rights and better working conditions in the industrial era in the U.S.

March 8th is close in date to the infamous New York Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911, when 148 women died due to conditions that made it impossible to escape from the burning factory. Immigrant women had already been agitating for better pay, safer environments, and even regular bathroom breaks as servants and factory workers, but the Triangle fire became a symbol of the poor conditions dealt with while women attempted to make a living.

Today , many countries celebrate International Women's Day as an official holiday. In the U.S., the day is part of National Women's History Month. In some countries, women are given gifts and honored, and have special women-only dinners.

Blogger Kate Carruthers of Aide-Memoire, reflecting on women's history, says "to think that only just over 100 years ago all my earnings would have legally belonged to my husband no matter what I thought!" She also provides an interesting list of British legal milestones for women in this entry. Weetabix at Elastic Waist says that she finds the characters from the television series The Golden Girls inspiring, as they remind us "amazing sex doesn't stop at 40."

I am inspired by the women's histories given in a book I finished a few days ago called Bachelor Girl: The Secret History of Single Women in the Twentieth Century by Betsy Israel. Bachelor Girl focuses on the lives of single women and their struggle for equality and to gain ground in the workforce, especially at the turn of the last century. Israel shows us the lives of these (mostly) young women who crammed themselves into boarding houses and were judged by society and their employers by their appearance and their morals just as much as the quality of their work, all in the name of independence and supporting families in the home country.

In fact, one of the parts I found most gripping was about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which of course is one of the major touchstones for International Women's Day. Israel writes:

Ignoring management, girls ran secret contests and lotteries and held parties on their breaks for almost any occasion. The last survivor of the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911 recalled recently that when the fire broke out on floor six, the girls there had just lit the candles on a cake--a coworker was getting engaged! Quickly they scattered; the survivor, who'd somehow made her way to a staircase, looked around for her engaged friend and saw her standing by a window. When she looked away and then back, the girl was gone; like hundreds of others, she had jumped.

What got me about this is that despite the conditions of the factory, of these women's lives, the fact that they may be escaping from the horrors of their jobs to being boxed up in a marriage where they would become chattel, was that these women still had hope. Hope for a better future and a will to survive. I am inspired by the women who came before me and pushed to make their lives better. It is a needed reminder that I can't sit on my ass and do nothing, because women all over the world still have so far to go.

Which women and what part of women's history inspires you? If you are blogging about this, please leave a link to your writing in the comments.

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