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Bread and Roses:
International Women's Day and the fight for a better life
Given the state of politics in the US and the moribund resistance from popular forces, it is often surprising to many that some of the great struggles of our time had their start in the Belly of the Beast. The tradition of May 1 as International Labor Day, for example, is marginalized in the country of its birth: it was the capstone of American Labor's fight for the eight hour day in which women and anarchists played a prominent role. International Women's Day was officially established by the UN only in 1975 as March 8; but its roots go back to the women-led textile strikes of New York, Lowell, and Lawrence. In the Lawrence strike of 1912, women carried placards reading "We Want Bread and Roses Too!" Thus the seeds-and slogan-of International Women's Day were sown. An anthem inspired by this message was penned soon after by James Oppenheim, and has been associated with IWD ever since.
I love the songs of this period, especially as originally written, because they speak of a timeless connection between generations and struggles that continues to this day. I may be an "originalist," though not of the Alito/Scalia/Brontosaurus mode, or even just a stick-in-the-mud. But like some devout Christians will never abandon the King James bible, I resist attempts to "update" these classic bits of living history. First of all, they usually need no revision: the remarkable thing about "Bread and Roses" is how neatly it speaks, in its original wording, to the struggle of women and labor today. Sad though it may be, working people everywhere are being forced as never before to choose between survival and dignity, purposeful work and intellectual, artistic and emotional fulfillment. In a century of human "progress," WalMart has achieved what the mill owners never did: a sort of semi-permanent immunity from the collective power of their workers' wrath.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess. Or, as Gerald Ford might have put it, "Things are more like they are now than they've ever been." Some verses of Bread and Roses have been changed over the years, most notably Pete Seeger's version, in which the line "For men are women's children/and we mother them again" was "corrected" to read something like "For they are in the struggle/and together we shall win." Even Oppenheim may have felt some of the discomfort apparent later to Seeger, since he seems to have written an alternate line, which reads "For men shall ne'er be free/'til our slavery's at an end."
But the quibble seems a small one. Both interpreters, as men, may have felt queasy about enshrining women's place as breeders in their international Pantheon. Yet, as many feminists have themselves pointed out, it may as well be jealousy as sensitivity. The miracle of birth is a biological fact; and while male parental investment may have been essential to the development of the species, but I think women hold up a bit more than half the sky, it's fair to say. The reason most of the world's women are poor is that their lives are inextricably linked with those of their children, most of whom subsist on less than a dollar a day. This has certainly not changed since the Bread and Roses strike, and it is exactly why cutting edge efforts are aimed at girls education and the engagement of women in the fight against hunger and poverty. This understanding perhaps illuminates another change in the song's lyrics over time, in the line "The rising of the women means the rising of the race." By race, of course, Oppenheim obviously means species; yet in perhaps a moment of weakness, others have changed it to "the rising of us all" (which of course, necessitates changing the rhyme. Why? As is all too apparent in current struggles, the uplifting of women is the key to the uplifting of the entire human race.
And while it is undoubtedly sexist to imply that only women can care about the softer side of life, it is equally beyond doubt that women were the ones to place such demands at the forefront of the struggle for a better life. "Roses, Too" says all that need be said about the desire-no, the profound and unmet human need-for "art and love and beauty" our drudging spirits still crave. When I go to school and see adolescent boys learning how to knit, or asking "can I work on my sewing now?" or so proud of their writing they come in after a weekend and burst to their teacher, "Ms. Julia, you're gonna love my poem!" When I see this newness unfold, and I let myself imagine what kind of men these might grow up to be, I can feel just the tiniest sliver of hope that the future might yet yield the Bread and Roses for which we all yearn.
[Hear Danny's scratchy version of the song
Bread and Roses
By James Oppenheim
Commemorating the Lawrence textile strike of 1912
And inspiration for the establishment of March 8 as
International Women's Day
As we come marching, marching, in the beauty of the day
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts grey
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses
For the people hear our singing, "Bread and roses! Bread and roses!"
As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread
Small art, and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew
Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too!
As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men
For they are women's children, and we mother them again
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes
Hearts starve as well as bodies: give us bread-but give us roses!
As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days
The rising of the women means the rising of the race
No more the drudge and idler-ten that toil while one reposes
But a sharing of life's glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!
© 2005 Daniel Patrick Welch. Reprint
permission granted with credit and link to danielpwelch.com.
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Writer, singer, linguist and activist Daniel Patrick Welch lives and writes in Salem, Massachusetts, with his wife, Julia
Nambalirwa-Lugudde. Together they run The
Greenhouse School. Some of his articles have been broadcast on radio, and translations are available in up to 20 languages. Links to the website are appreciated at