By Kirsten Magas
Illustration by Magdalena Xochitl Burtnik Urueta
Without the art of protest, including marches, strikes and walkouts, women would not be the powerful members of society they are today. Despite making up over half the population, women have been fighting tooth and nail to earn the same rights granted to their male counterparts from the start. Brave women throughout history abandoned their complacency and took to the streets to protest for change, over centuries.
Although the Women’s March might have been the first protest to officially claim the name, the first women’s march happened long before 2017. In 1789, during the French Revolution, working class women fought classism by protesting the costliness and scarcity of bread. About 10,000 armed women marched to Versailles, broke into the royal palace and demanded King Louis XVI’s return to Paris in order to ensure a steady food supply. The Women’s March on Versailles was the first of many violent actions taken by the women to create a new place for themselves in society.
Women requested permission to train alongside the French Guard and arm themselves with pikes, pistols, sabres and rifles. The request was denied, and women continued the battle for equal rights unarmed. Women pursued this militant avenue while under the impression that gaining the right to bear arms would allow women to step into citizenship. Not to mention, peaceful protests often went ignored. In 1793, a crowd of women spoke to demand a ban on hoarding bread. When their cries were not heard, the women used their power in numbers to ransack bakeries and kidnap officials to make their demands of “bread and the Constitution of 1793” known.
For Americans, the most recent feminist protest occurred in 2017, as mentioned previously. The day after President Donald Trump was inaugurated, Americans holding posterboards scribbled with feminist slogans at Washington, D.C. set a new record for the largest single-day protest in U.S. history with the Women’s March on Washington. According to Time magazine, inauguration day has long been associated with women’s protests in the U.S., dating all the way back to 1913. Led by suffragists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, 5,000 to 8,000 women marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. the day before President Woodrow Wilson took office.
The suffrage movement is perhaps the most important issue in women’s history, and its origins can be traced back roughly half a century earlier to Seneca Falls, New York in the year 1848, where the first recorded convention for women’s rights was held. This fight for women’s suffrage became a catalyst for several women’s rights protests to occur.
In 1911, two years before the suffrage movement came to the nation’s capitol, Alice Paul rallied with local women on election day in Independence Square, Philadelphia. While the white Pennsylvanian men decided the next president of the U.S., women donned yellow sashes and held yellow pennants as unmistakable visual support for the suffrage movement. The following year, Alice Paul spearheaded a return to Independence Square. In 1912, the women participating arrived in vehicles decorated with “Votes for Women” banners. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, attendant Mary Ware Dennett read the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments, returning to the ideals that their foremothers drafted at the Seneca Falls Convention, and reinforcing the fact that not much had changed for women since.
These events led up to the Women’s Suffrage Procession in 1913, with respected foreign leaders, organisers, working class people, college students and supportive men in attendance. While acknowledging the erasure of women of colour from the history books, women of colour, such as the Black women from the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, were present that day and marched alongside the masses. The protesters were met with violence, and the police did little to protect them from the spit, thrown objects and blatant physical assault brought on by spectators.
It took another seven years to end voter discrimination on the basis of sex with the 19th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. However, many women — particularly women of colour — continued to be excluded from the polls on the basis of racial discrimination. Regardless, the marches and rallies played a crucial role in garnering support for the women’s suffrage movement leading up to the passing of the 19th Amendment.
Similarly to the U.S., the U.K. regards women’s suffrage as the most prominent advancement in women’s history. Women were out to dismantle the patriarchal values which had long been ingrained in society. Suffragists spread information and refused to pay taxes while suffragettes smashed windows and organised hunger strikes, earning women the right to vote in 1918. However, women made monumental strides in various other areas of society, particularly in worker’s rights.
In 1897, women and girls made history for worker’s rights in Bow, London. Most of the working class in 19th century England were familiar with being overworked and underpaid. However, the workers at the Bryant & May match company suffered the health condition phosphorus necrosis of the jaw, also called phossy jaw, caused by working with white phosphorus used in the process of manufacturing matches.
Annie Besant, an activist and philanthropist, caught wind of the injustice and protested through journalism. Published in her weekly newspaper, The Link, Besant wrote an article exposing the conditions factory workers endured at Bryant & May. When Bryant & May tried to release a paper contradicting the article published by Besant, workers refused to sign the paper, which led to a worker being fired.
On 2 July 1888, around 1,400 women and girls refused to work. This became known as the Matchgirls’ Strike. Besant helped establish terms during negotiations to ensure no unfair fines would be deducted from their pay any longer and meal breaks would be taken in a separate room to avoid phosphorus contamination in food moving forward.
The matchgirls were not the only ladies fighting for rights on the blue collar front. Decades later, in 1931, Jessie Eden led a mass protest in Birmingham, England to unionise and etched her name into women’s history. Noticing her ability to work quickly and accurately, the Joseph Lucas Motor Components factory used Eden to set the speed standard for the entire factory on a new system that commissioned pay based on outputs; her fellow women workers were unable to keep up and were beginning to be let go from the factory.
Eden sought unionisation for the women through the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) to protect her fellow workers from over-exhaustion and potential underpayment, but the AEU refused to allow women in the union. Frustrated, Eden led the 10,000 non-unionised women workers on a week-long strike. As a result, the new system was dropped and Eden was awarded the Gold Medal by the leader of the Transport & General Workers union after a mass increase in numbers of women joining British unions.
Bringing the story full circle, the issue of inflation driving up the cost of bread returns centuries later in 20th century Russia. The Russian working class struggled, making wages far below the cost of living. After working laborious jobs, women would wait hours in line at bakeries to bring home a loaf of bread to their families only for the bread to run out before reaching the front of the line. On 8 March 1917, thousands of women were joined by other working class citizens in a spontaneous attack on police and bakeries, with nothing but stones from the street and snowballs leftover from the cold, Russian winter to use as weapons. This moment birthed the first major event of the Russian Revolution and International Women’s Day.
The history of women’s protests spans much wider than the pockets of the world discussed here. Despite that, we hope you learned a new name of a woman who not only existed in history but changed it too. In the spirit of Women’s History Month, we hope we gave you a new piece of the story women continue to write today.