The Tragedies That Led to Women's Equality

Updated on March 12, 2019

In the early 19th century, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union was established in 1900 by Rose Schneiderman. It acted as a powerhouse for women in the workforce. Due to lack of support from the government and male co-workers, the ILGWU had what was known as "the Uprising of 20,000" in 1909 and lasted for 14 weeks. It was a largely spontaneous strike, sparked by a short walk out of workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The factory was a sweatshop—the conditions were punishing. Shifts were normally 11 to 12 hours long. 500 women, mostly immigrants, were sat at long tables in narrow spaces sewing shirtwaists for hours on end. They earned $7 and $12 a week, and the workrooms and exits were locked shut by company management to prevent workers from slacking off. Despite these powerful strikes drawing attention to both workers and women’s rights, the issues of women’s worker's rights were still faced with ignorance from management.

On March 25, 1911, a fire started in a bucket of cotton scraps. Women were trapped in the working rooms as the doors were locked, fire escapes were weak and elevators were out of order. 146 women died that day because of careless working conditions and ignorance. After the fire, the ILGWU pushed for a Committee on Public Safety to be formed. It was headed by eyewitness Frances Perkins to identify specific problems and lobby for new legislation, such as the bill to grant workers shorter hours in a work week, known as the "54-hour Bill". If it wasn't for those 146 lives, it would have taken far longer for people to see the unfair treatment of women in these sweatshops.


Moving into the era of second-wave feminism in the early 1960s to the late 1980s, many people had an underlying anger towards women who were advocating alongside the Women’s Liberation group—a movement that wanted to change how women were perceived in their culture, redefine the socio-economic and political roles of women in society, and transform mainstream society. The movement was widely criticized as a radical movement that was forcing women out of gender confining roles, which many saw as leaving their families behind, or even to be considered ‘man-haters’. Many men and some women were so angry at the ideologies of female independence and Women’s Liberation having so much of an impact that they would act out against the movement in protest and even violence.

On December 6, 1989, 14 women were murdered in their classroom at École Polytechnique in Montreal, Canada. Marc Lépine, a French-Canadian man, entered a classroom at the university. He separated the male and female students. After claiming that he was "fighting feminism" and calling the women in the room "a bunch of feminists," he shot and killed six young women. He then moved through halls and killed another eight women who attended the university. It was seen as the norm for women to experience some forms of discrimination in the workplace, schools and just out and about, and it still happens to this day, but the École Polytechnique Massacre forced many changes to take place in Canada. The massacre inspired one of the students who were in the building at the time of the shooting, Wendy Cukier, to advocate for stricter gun control laws in Canada. Her push for a safer environment led to the passage of Bill C-68, also known as the Firearms Act, in 1995. Another initiative that took place in response to the massacre was a House of Commons Sub-Committee created on the Status of Women. The federal government, under Brian Mulroney, established the Canadian Panel on Violence Against Women in August of 1991. The panel created "National Action Plan" consisting of an "Equality Action Plan" and a "Zero Tolerance Policy” made to advance women's equality and end violence against women through enforced government policy. The massacre influenced initiatives to push an end to domestic violence against women and even got Government policies to change and new laws to be enforced. Women and male allies took the tragedy of the massacre and turned it into action. Stated by Judy Rebick in a CBC interview, ”The death of those young women would not be in vain, we promised. We would turn our mourning into organizing to put an end to male violence against women.”


Now, in the 21st century, third and fourth wave feminism all have a major platform. Third wave feminism is the idea that all peoples of all walks of life deserve equal rights. Fourth wave feminism is more of a branch off of that that bring awareness to not only domestic violence against women, but also sexual harassment. Currently, our society is in the process of change when it comes to handling sexual harassment and violence charges. In 1991, the President of the United States, George W. Bush, nominated Clarence Thomas to be a judge on the Supreme Court. It wasn’t until a report of a private interview with Anita Hill, an American attorney and academic, by the FBI was leaked to the press. Despite majority approval from the Senate, the hearings reopened after the interview was released and Hill was asked to testify at a hearing in front of the Senate. She said on the 11th of October in 1991 in the televised hearings that Thomas had sexually harassed her while he was her supervisor at the Department of Education and the EEOC. Hill was asked to describe her several encounters with Thomas publicly and on national television. The issue that women face when coming forward with sexual assault allegations is the aspect of whether people believed their story or not. Hill was faced with severe backlash during the hearings. Republican Senator Orrin Hatch even went so far to imply that, ”Hill was working in tandem with 'slick lawyers' and interest groups bent on destroying Thomas' chances to join the court." Even in hope to call witnesses to support Hills claims, four female witnesses reportedly waited in the wings to support Hill’s statement, but they were never called to testify. Anita Hill lost the case despite having to recount her past sexual harassment experiences with Thomas. Clarence Thomas still holds a seat on the Supreme Court.


This past year, a similar event took place. The current President of the United States, Donald Trump, nominated Brett Kavanaugh to take a seat on the Supreme Court. Three women came forward accusing him of sexual harassment. The only woman to testify, Dr. Christine Basely Ford, had a brutal hearing much like Anita Hill. In tearful and obviously painful recounts of the instances where Kavanaugh supposedly sexually abused Basely Ford, she too lost her case and Kavanaugh holds a seat on the Supreme Court. Basely Ford has been mocked, made fun of and discriminated against by the President, Republican senators, and of course on Twitter. The tragedy that these two women faced, both similar in ways, are still being ignored. Women and male allies are angered by the losses and are pushing for lawmakers and government officials in power to start believing survivors so women and men too, don’t face injustices in the face of their traumas.


The only way women have and are moving forward towards a society where they are treated as equals is by going through tragedies, facing unrelenting violence and discussing their traumas. It has never been the norm to treat women as an equal—women needed to struggle and face severities of hardships in their lives for change to even be considered. Said by Gloria Steinem, “The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.” There needs to be a new normal—a normal where women can be treated with equality and respect without having to go through tragedies, without needing to prove they’re worthy of it.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Rose Lamberti


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