International Women's Day: Recognizing All Women
Women’s History Month began as a one-week celebration in March 1982. After being petitioned by the National Women’s History Project, Congress passed a bill in 1987 which designated the month of March as Women’s History Month. Every year, we celebrate the contributions and specific achievements women have made over the course of American History.
Today, March 8th, we recognize International Women’s Day which primarily celebrates the movement of women’s rights. This year’s theme is #ChoosetoChallenge highlighting that we are each responsible for our own thoughts and actions every day. Collectively, we can all create a more inclusive world.
The story of International Women’s Day focuses on European immigrant women in New York at the beginning of the 20th century. There is no mention of the countless enslaved African women who labored without pay across the United States. No mention of the enslaved African women whose unpaid labor enriched white people in Central, North, South America and Europe.
In 1985, author Jacqueline Jones wrote in Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow that enslaved African women did the same work as their male counterparts. They planted sugar cane, plowed and helped with harvest. During the winter, they repaired roads, pitched hay, and set up rail fences. In spite of these backbreaking chores enslaved women were forced to perform, they were also expected to bear and raise children, while being victims of sexual predators. Enslaved African women resisted in various ways and this probably led to the “Strong Black Woman” myth that many of us still try to make a reality.
When we talk about resistance, we can look no further than Milla Granson, also known as Lily Ann Granderson. Although it was illegal for enslaved Africans to be literate, Milla learned to read and write. Risking her life, she held classes in her cabin late at night and taught hundreds of enslaved Africans to read and write. She was known as the “Midnight Teacher.”
Black women resisted their enslavement by any means necessary. After the abolition of chattel slavery in the United States (1865), the kind of work that was available to Black women mimicked the work they did during their enslavement - housekeepers, servants, laundresses, cooks, maids and washerwomen.
We can bet there were no Black women in the group of 15,000 factory workers who marched through the streets of Manhattan on March 8, 1908, because they would not have been “granted the privilege” of working in a factory in New York.
Even though Black women are not written into the history of the beginning of International Women’s Day, we have contributed to the women’s movement and thankfully we have historians who write our stories.
As Malcolm X once said, “The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” His words couldn’t be truer. For as long as we’ve been in America, we have been overlooked, and disregarded. Despite all that, we’re out here making moves that have and will continue to change this world. As we celebrate International Women’s Day, we must acknowledge the contributions Black women have made to this country. We are a part of the thread. We are a part of the conversation.