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Exploring Women's Rights

Exploring Women's Rights

I asked students if they had ever heard of a celebration called "International Women's Day." None had. I explained that the word "international" meant "all over the world." I asked what International Women's Day might be about. The answers were interesting: "A day where women all over the world get to do whatever they want." "When the only people in the world that day are women." "The birthday of all the women in the world."

I told them that during the next few days, we would discuss International Women's Day and make a book about what we had learned.

I tried to use age-appropriate language to get my ideas across. I stressed that a long time ago, women did not have the right to vote and that working women were paid very little money and had to work in horrible situations. I explained, for example, that about a hundred years ago, garment workers in textile factories out East had to work 12-18 hours every day and did not get to take breaks or stop for a snack or meal. Students were particularly shocked when I explained that rats often ran through the factories.

To make my comments more real, I showed photos depicting women huddled over sewing machines, young children working on huge machinery, and filth and vermin everywhere. Using the photos as a reference point, the students and I discussed concepts such as going on strike and walking picket lines. I used these discussions to move into the specifics of the strike that began on March 8, 1908. (On this day, 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter work hours, better pay, voting rights and an end to child labor. They adopted the slogan "Bread and Roses," with bread symbolizing fair wages and roses a better quality of life. International Women's Day was first proposed by the Socialist International in 1910, and has subsequently been recognized by a wide range of international organizations, including the United Nations.)

During our discussions of going on strike, Angela, an African-American who was one of the three children in my class of 23 who was not white, made a connection I had hoped someone would make: "It's like when we learned about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. They had to carry signs to make things more fair and I think those signs helped to make things better."

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