WeWalk: Behind the Scenes of Opening the Way

Opening the Way is a walking tour celebrating women's history in downtown Manhattan. It is a multifaceted new project developed by the award-winning nonprofit organization Women's eNews. The walk honors the achievements of women such as Margaret Sanger, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Ida B. Wells -- 21 women in all. This blog has been created to update fans of the walk on its exciting developments and expansion. Please join us in revitalizing history that has been ignored or forgotten!

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Centennial Anniversary of the Tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, NYC
Today marks one of the most significant days in women’s history this year. It is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire—the largest workplace disaster in New York up until the World Trade Center attacks. It sprung into action a labor rights movement to enable fair and safe workplace conditions in the future.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company specialized in the popular “shirtwaist” which the New York Times blog describes as a “brash but sensible pairing of tailored shirt and skirt” that offers a scandalous peek of its owner’s ankles. It was preferred by women of the day for its utility, as opposed to the longer, more confining dresses that they watched their mothers wear. Located one half-block east from Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, NYC, the Triangle factory was the largest maker of shirtwaists in the city. It packed hundreds of young female seamstresses close together on the top three floors of the Asch building, compelling them to work long hours for $5 or less per week.

The infamous fire took place towards the end of the work day on March 25, 1911, when somebody tossed either a lit match or cigarette into a waste basket. It spread rapidly as it caught to the scraps of fabric hanging overhead, and workers scrambled to escape. But the doors had been locked to prevent them from stealing or leaving early, and fire ladders could only reach the sixth floor, whereas most workers were on the ninth floor. (The owners, who were on the tenth floor, were notified by telephone and got out safely, as did other high executives.) Onlookers watched in horror as more than 50 people jumped to their deaths. An additional 19 people fell into an empty elevator shaft, 20 fell from a fire escape, and at least 50 burned to death. The fire ultimately killed 146 people, all but 23 of whom were young (mostly immigrant) women.

Frances Perkins, advocate for safety
One of the onlookers was Frances Perkins, a social worker who was having tea in Washington Square Park across from the factory. The fire motivated her to later become one of the most important advocates of reform, and she was named executive director of an organization that formed as a result of the tragedy, called the Committee on Safety. New York State subsequently passed the strongest workers’ laws in the nation and became a role model for other states. It began to mandate automatic sprinklers in high-rise buildings, fire drills at large companies, and factory doors that swung outwards rather than inwards. It established minimum wages and maximum hours, and demonstrated that the state indeed has a responsibility to protect its workers.

Women’s eNews will be hosting filmmaker Jamila Wignot on Sunday, March 27, to screen and discuss her recently released PBS documentary “Triangle Fire,” which examines the circumstances behind the fire and the impact it had on reform, labor rights and women’s rights in American history. The event is free, so if you haven’t RSVPed yet make sure to do so soon!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

DNAinfo Staff Explore Women's History of Lower Manhattan

Reporter Julie Shapiro joined Opening the Way staff last week to take our Women’s History Walk on one of the most beautiful spring days New York has had so far. She and her editors subsequently posted a great article and comprehensive slideshow of different sights on the tour, as well as information about the female historical figures associated with them.

DNAinfo (for which the acronym stands for “Digital Network Associates”) is an online news outlet that focuses on local Manhattan neighborhood news coverage, sports, events and entertainment. Billionaire Joe Ricketts founded DNAinfo in order to “figure out the future of news,” according to the New York Observer, and to place a special emphasis on the role of multimedia in contributing to the spread of knowledge. “The upheaval facing traditional media provides a great opportunity for DNAinfo. Now is the right time to experiment with new ways of storytelling, content delivery, and revenue generation,” DNAinfo's website explains.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Feminists for Choice Profiles Opening the Way

Opening the Way staff were excited to recently talk to Serena Freewomyn, the founder of Feminists for Choice, when she interviewed us to discuss our women’s history walking tour of downtown Manhattan and what we think the future will bring in learning about women’s history.

“Women are everywhere, and we’ve all got a story to tell,” Serena writes, titling the piece “History Is Hip.” She notes that Opening the Way includes both physical and virtual tours, and examines the role of technology as a catalyst for future women’s history educational opportunities. “The Women’s e-News tour is particularly unique, because visitors can participate virtually, using their cell phones and the internet, in addition to going on the in-person group tour on March 27th,” she writes. Her piece was thoughtful and well-written, and we thank her for profiling us!

Feminists for Choice is a blog that describes itself as a collective of women's rights advocates, founded in the spring of 2009. Their mission is predicated on the notion that feminism is inherently connected to a woman's right to control her own body. The bloggers at Feminists for Choice have authored an impressive selection of topics on women’s history for the month of March so far, including a piece the history of women’s menstrual products; a round-up of articles about Margaret Sanger, whom Opening the Way honors on the first stop of our tour for her dedication to reproductive rights; and an examination of the life of Gwen Araujo, who was brutally murdered in 2002 for being transgender. Give the blog a look if you haven’t seen it yet!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The History Behind International Women's Day

Today is the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, which highlights the accomplishments of women around the world while bringing awareness to their ongoing plight. On this day, March 8, we encourage activists to educate themselves and others about women’s history in order to emphasize the struggles women have overcome in the past and the important contributions that they have made when given the opportunity. 

The United Nations describes International Women’s Day as “the story of ordinary women as makers of history.” It is rooted in a tradition where women worldwide hold a common oppression in political, economic, and sexual subordination due to their gender, but the origins of Women’s Day differ in various parts of the world. 

The first National Women’s Day was celebrated by the American Socialist Party on February 28, 1909, and American women continued to celebrate it every last Sunday in February until 1913. Likewise, in 1910, the Socialist International proposed an International Women’s Day to help win suffrage and other rights for women, which was unanimously accepted by countries such as Germany, Denmark, Austria and Switzerland. On March 8, 1917, Russian women protested the czar under a “Bread and Peace” strike and won the right to vote from the provisional government four days later, after the czar was abdicated. The UN subsequently began celebrating IWD on March 8 in 1975, and passed a resolution two years later to proclaim a Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace.

Yet every year on International Women’s Day, women are bound by gender across linguistic, geographical, cultural and political lines. This year’s celebration drew 465 events in 70 countries around the world, primarily related to the theme of women and education. Feminist groups commemorated the day in particular by holding rallies such as Egypt’s “Million Women March” to protest the exclusion of women’s voices. International Women’s Day will likely continue to have relevance throughout the world for a long time to come.