“Bread and Roses” is a poem written by James Oppenheim in 1911 which extols the rising up of women for greater rights. By this point in time, women in America had been struggling for many rights including the right to vote, to greater wages and to safety in the work place. In this light, the “bread” of the poem represented survival’s necessities, such as income and shelter, while “roses” symbolized that which raises one above mere existence: dignity and respect. In 1912, the workers at a textile mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts, went on strike to demand greater working conditions. Legend has it that this strike was led largely by women and that they used the slogan “Bread and Roses”. The Lawrence Strike became famous for resulting in many arrests and deaths, and, most importantly, an increase in wages and work standards.
Since then, “Bread and Roses” has become the name and rallying call of various groups and individuals working towards greater equality and dignity for women everywhere.
We have all heard this before: all around the world, women’s rights are being grossly violated. It is so pervasively general knowledge, it is almost tedious. The scope and scale of the unfair treatment of women and girls by individuals and societies alike is so great, it is next to impossible to fully grasp it all in one’s mind at once. So, we break it up and try to deal with it in pieces – poverty here, political prohibitions there, lack of access to education and job opportunities somewhere over yonder. Let’s not forget violence in own homes. We’ll wrap that one up to go.
Given all this, I am stupefied each time I come across a gender inequality naysayer. What inequality? Where? You can vote now! Maybe by dividing up the issue into manageable, actionable bits, maybe speaking politely about “gender equality” instead of the more abrasive sounding “sexism”, we allow some the peace of mind to imagine that there is no such thing as a deeply entrenched, all encompassing, institutionalized hierarchy of the sexes that cannot be assuaged by stuffing your fingers in your ears and belting out Kumbaya.
Women are still fighting for bread and roses.
We fight for it in demanding rights to land and property, in attempting to make our own life choices, in trying to participate in crucial decisions affecting the environments we live in. We fight because some women dread the homecoming of their own husbands because they like to use their fists when they’ve had a bit too much to drink. We fight because the poorest of the poorest of the world is still a woman. We fight because in some places the happy accident of being born a girl means a life has ended before it has begun.
The poem was put to music in the 1970s and one cannot help being moved on hearing it. I know this firsthand as it is the tradition of my college, Mount Holyoke College, to sing “Bread and Roses” at every graduation. I leave you with the last verse of the song, as sung by the students of my alma mater:
“As we go 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 where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses, bread and roses.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; bread and roses, bread and roses.”
You can’t drown it out forever. Can’t you hear us singing?
Originally published in the Guyana Times, October 2011