Wednesday, March 3, 2010


International Women’s Day (IWD) is a United Nations (UN) recognized day which according to the UN is dedicated to “looking back on past struggles and accomplishments, and more importantly, for looking ahead to the untapped potential and opportunities that await future generations of women.” In 1975, during International Women's Year, the U N began celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8. However IWD supposedly “emerged from the activities of labour movements at the turn of the twentieth century in North America and across Europe.” In the USA, National Woman's Day was first observed in 1909 when the Socialist Party of America choose February 28 to honour the 1908 garment workers’ strike in New York, where women protested against their working conditions. The history books omit the fact that the women who were protesting were white women because at that time in the history of North America African women were relegated to working as domestics in the homes of white women.

In the December 6, 1938 edition of Crisis Magazine (founded in 1910 by W.E.B Du Bois as a crusading voice for civil rights) Ella Baker and Marva Cooke wrote an article documenting the experience of African American women in New York who worked as domestic servants. Some of the women were as young as seventeen and as old as seventy “who would stand on a two block stretch as white housewives from the suburbs drove by in their cars and negotiated to hire them for domestic service.” This area was considered the Bronx Slave Market and Baker and Cooke wrote that this “illustrated the race, class and gender subordination of black women.” Following in-depth interviews and hours of research Baker and Cooke observed "Rain or shine hot or cold you will find them there Negro women old and young sometimes bedraggled sometimes neatly dressed waiting expectantly for Bronx housewives to buy their strength and energy for an hour, two hours or even for a day at the munificent rate of fifteen, twenty-five or if luck be with them thirty cents." In their groundbreaking expose Baker and Cooke also discussed the backbreaking work and the sexual assault the women often encountered on the job from the male relatives and friends of the white women who employed them as domestic workers.

The similar struggles of domestic workers in Canada have been documented in Makeda Silvera’s 1989 published Silenced: Talks with Working Class Caribbean Women about their Lives and Struggles as Domestic Workers in Canada. The vivid descriptions of the emotional, physical and sexual abuse as told in the voices of the women themselves, using their own language makes for a heart rending read. Many of these women had left children and other loved ones behind in their home countries while they tried to make a living with the hope of eventually reuniting. Those hopes were in many cases never realised as a result of the turmoil that they dealt with working in precarious and unsafe conditions.

IWD is also supposed to address the absence of women from the history books. While white women’s history may have been relegated to the margins of the history books, African women’s history is usually in the footnotes or entirely absent. Fortunately there are books written mostly by African men and women (from the continent and the Diaspora) that document the lives, struggles, triumph and contributions of African women internationally.

In Annette Madden’s 2000 published In Her Footsteps 101 Remarkable Black Women from the Queen of Sheba to Queen Latifa some of the remarkable women are well known while others are not known. This book which lists 101 African women beginning with Dinknesh who lived more than 3 million years ago in Ethiopia and is considered the first woman in the world according to archeological records should be required reading.

In many cases when we read of a historic struggle of Africans the names of the women are absent. We may know of the freedom fighters of Haiti who wrested their freedom from brutal French enslavement but most of those names are male. One of the few books where the contribution of women to the Haitian Revolution is mentioned is Haiti the Breached Citadel published in 2004 by Haitian historian Patrick Bellegarde-Smith. One of the women mentioned in Bellegarde-Smith’s book is Cecile Fatiman who officiated with Boukman at the Vodou ceremony that launched the revolution on August 22, 1791. Bellegarde-Smith also writes of Marie-Jean Lamartiniere who is popularly known as Haiti’s Joan of Arc for fighting at the Battle of La Crete-a-Pierrot of 1802. We need to know the names of these women described in Haiti the Breached Citadel: “Other female revolutionaries such as Suzanne Sanite Belaire and Henriette Sainte-Marc demonstrated formidable military prowess until they were captured and executed by the French.”

In 2009 Professor Carol Boyce Davies published Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones. Claudia Jones (1915-1964) was an African woman born in Trinidad whose life and work in the USA and Britain as an activist, communist and feminist has not been documented in mainstream history books. Boyce Davies writes: “The fact that Claudia Jones is buried to the left of Marx in Highgate Cemetery, London, provides an apt metaphor for my assertions in this study. Her location in death continues to represent her ideological position while living: this black woman, articulating political positions that combine the theoretics of Marxism-Leninism and decolonization with a critique of class oppression, imperialist aggression, and gender subordination, is thus ‘left’ of Karl Marx.”

Jones is brought to life in the pages of Boyce Davies’ book as a pioneer among African women feminists who addressed the exploitation of her sisters and advocated the inclusion of race with gender and class. In her book Boyce Davies recognizes Jones pioneering work incorporating gender and race in her political critique and activism.

She writes
: Claudia Jones’s position on the “superexploitation of the black woman,” Marxist-Leninist in its formation, offered, for its time, the clearest analysis of the location of black women – not in essentialized, romantic, or homogenizing terms but practically as located in the U.S. and world economic hierarchies. It thereby advanced Marxist-Leninist positions beyond their apparent limitations. To develop her argument, Jones contended that if all workers are exploited because of the usurping of the surplus value of their labor, then black women – bereft of any kind of institutional mechanism to conquer this exploitation, and often assumed to have to work uncountable hours without recompense – live a life of superexploitation beyond what Marx had identified as the workers’ lot. Jones’s argument regarding the superexploitation of the black woman is clearly a position left of Karl Marx, since Marx himself did not account for race and gender and/ or the position of the black woman.

Many white feminists similar to Marx do not have “either the imagination or the historical context to argue for the gendered black subject” and therefore the history of IWD for the most part excludes the history of African women as activists, feminists and workers.

Even in the traditional telling of the history of the Black Power and Civil Rights Movements, the role and activities of the women are not as prominent as those of the men. In 2009 Professors Dayo Gore, Jeanne Theoharris and Komozi Woodard collaborated to publish Want To Start A Revolution? Radical Women In The Black Freedom Struggle where African American women’s contribution to the Civil Rights, Black Power and feminist movements are at the centre. The women including Shirley Chisholm, Shirley Graham DuBois, Vicki Garvin, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Assata Shakur and Johnnie Tilmon are recognized for their activism, bravery and ground-breaking work that contributed to changing the lives of Americans.

There has been a growing movement to include women’s history in the curriculum in Ontario schools. Two years ago, on February 14, 2008 a group of women held a demonstration outside the provincial government offices demanding that the McGuinty Liberals create a women’s studies course in Ontario high schools. Education Minister Kathleen Wynne told the group yesterday that progress is being made to develop women’s studies as an optional high school course. Ideally this course will include the intersectionality of class, gender and race.

The names of African Canadian women including Marie Joseph Angelique, Jean Augustine, Zanana Akande, Rosemary Brown, Lucy Blackburn, Chloe Cooley, Afua Cooper, Viola Desmond, Sherona Hall, Mary Ann Shadd and Carol Ann Wright are all part of Canadian history and their names and contributions must be included to encourage our "future generations of women" to tap into their potential.

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