SAINT JOHN, N.B. (CUP) — The turn of the 20th century was a time of both rapid industrialization and rapid societal change.
The concept of an international women’s day began to take shape throughout the United States and the industrialized world in the 1850’s as women (mostly young immigrants) were being exploited in sweatshops — forced to work 14 to 18 hour days while enduring unsafe conditions and unreasonable pay.
The first formal protest was held by garment workers in New York City on Mar. 8, 1857, but was quickly quelled by police. Shortly afterwards the first Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union was formed.
Mar. 8 continued to be recognized by some as an international day of protest for female sweatshop workers. Extremely poor working conditions continued however and the movement did not begin to pick up speed until a pivotal protest in New York City in 1908, when 15 thousand women hit the streets demanding shorter hours, higher pay, and voting rights. The first official International Women’s Day was held on Feb. 28 the following year.
Although the movement was now in full force, real change in working conditions would not be seen until tragedy struck.
On Mar. 25, 1911, 149 women died when a fire broke out on the eighth floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York City. Although two of the three floors occupied by the company were successfully evacuated, news of the blaze reached the workers of the ninth floor too late.
The stairwell, which served as the principal exit point for the workers, had already filled with suffocating smoke and heat and the alternate exit had been locked in order to reduce the risk of theft by the company’s employees.
By today’s standards, both the cause and effect of the blaze could be attributed to gross negligence on the part of the owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris. However, in 1911, many safety standards had yet to be established within the country and the conditions under which these women worked were not considered unusual or unreasonable.
This tragic event marked not only a major turning point in the way in which unions viewed the importance of safety standards within factories, but a turning point within the women’s rights movement as well.
Although this event did not mark the first International Women’s Day, the Triangle Factory fire has lived in the hearts of many as a symbol illustrating the need for women’s rights everywhere. These 149 women of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, known internationally as martyrs, did not die in vain, but shall live forever in strength and solidarity through those continuing to fight for this cause today.