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International Women's Day and the textile industry

The women's movement began in the fashion industry. Take a look into history with us and find out what the topic has to do with us. Read the post now.

Women in the fashion industry

Since the topic of feminism became louder and more visible a few years ago, the fashion industry has been happy to print women's opinions and political statements on T-shirts, sweaters or jute bags for everyone to see. History shows that the fashion industry has actually thrived on oppressing women for centuries. In our blog post we take a look at the history of the women's movement and ask ourselves how it came about - and what it has to do with us.

Flames and Strike: The Beginnings

Low wages, long working hours, no protective laws: On March 8, 1908, workers at a New York textile company decided to strike for better working conditions. The factory manager then locked the workers in his factory, which for some unknown reason went up in flames a few hours later. 129 workers died on this momentous day.

The first Women's Day in history

A year later, numerous women took to the streets again. The sad occasion this time: to honor the victims on the anniversary of the accident. The eighth of March would later become the date of the first Women's Day in history. When a textile factory in New York burned again two years later, the victims were mainly minors who had sewn there under inhumane conditions. Terrible result: 149 dead. The images of the girls on fire trying to save themselves by jumping from the eighth floor must have been horrific. Echoes of the great tragedies of our time are awakened. But it was a disaster that could have been prevented. At a time when legal requirements to protect workers were practically non-existent, blocking factory exits was commonplace. The reason: There was a fear of theft of goods by employees.

International women's movement in the shadow of the dictatorship

In the same year, the first International Women's Day was created under the leadership of Clara Zetkin, an important politician and women's rights activist. It was brought into being by the German and international women's movement. In the USA and many European countries, women took to the streets. Their demands: the right to vote, fair wages, shorter working hours and safety at work.

In 1919, at least one of their goals seemed to have been achieved: in Weimar Germany, women were finally allowed to vote. The number of female employees increased. But the success didn't last long. The country was moving towards dictatorship, and the rise of the NSDAP and the associated National Socialist ideology of its rulers completely reversed the successes of the women's movement: women's associations and organizations were forcibly dissolved. The women's movement, it was said, was a Jewish idea. Women were pushed out of higher positions. Limits on university enrollment made it very difficult for women to study.

Only after the end of the war did new women's organizations emerge again. They wanted to take part in reconstruction because, according to their leading figures, a democratic state without equal rights was unthinkable.

Equality as a principle of democracy

In 1949, MP Elisabeth Selbert, amid massive protests, achieved the inclusion of the sentence “Men and women have equal rights” in the Basic Law.

Over the years, women continued to organize and fight for their rights. But after reunification in 1989, two different images of women came together . On the one hand, the women of the GDR, who, thanks to a comprehensive after-school and kindergarten network, went to work alongside their domestic obligations as a matter of course, and on the other hand, the Western women, who mainly raised children and took care of the household.

The first all-German Women's Day after reunification took place in 1994. Women protested for equal rights, for the compatibility of family and work, and for fairer pay. The women's movement continued to institutionalize and celebrate successes - some of which sound shockingly obvious from today's perspective. A particularly memorable achievement was that marital rape was made a criminal offense from 1997. This is indicative of the need to catch up that has always existed in the German democracy when it comes to women's rights.

International Women's Day has become increasingly important again in recent years. Among other things, this may have to do with the election of US President Donald Trump, who has made sexist comments on several occasions and has been widely accused of sexual harassment. Trump may be just a symptom of a time when sexual violence, exploitation and sexism are becoming more and more evident, brought to light by those who express their outrage through initiatives like 'MeToo'. Today's debates show a legitimate desire for education in the fight against oppression and sexism in general. Women in Western countries are still fighting for equal pay, and women's groups continue to have to defend themselves against restrictive abortion laws.

Achieved a lot and gained nothing?

Since 2019, International Women's Day has been an official holiday in Berlin's calendar. Yet for many women around the world, relatively little has changed in the last 100 years. This particularly affects the clothing industry. Seamstresses in Bangladesh, as affected by inhumane working conditions today as their New York predecessors were at the beginning of the 20th century, are the victims of a development that is linked to the globalized economic system.

Because what is happening in Bangladesh also concerns consumers here today. German companies are relocating their production to Asia in order to remain competitive. Fast fashion and cheap prices from abroad force people to keep up in order to survive in the market.

It looks as if Germany has done well - at least in an economic sense: the country is the fifth largest exporter of products from the textile and clothing industry. German companies were already successfully asserting themselves at the end of the 19th century, when the British textile industry grew into the biggest competition on mainland Europe. The development of the loom and later the washing machine helped create a true textile hotspot in Lower Saxony, for example.

The global economic crisis of 1929, followed by World War II, brought many companies to their knees. The demand for textiles fell drastically. But things didn't get better in the post-war period. The textile industry continued to lose importance, but this time against the background of simplified imports from abroad.

Bangladesh and beyond

Today, a total of around 35 billion euros are generated from the sale of clothing in Germany every year, 15 billion more than in the meat industry . Production is carried out in factories abroad, such as in Bangladesh. Textile workers there have to work late into the night and toilet visits are strictly monitored so that employees don't drink. If mistakes are made, there are penalties and, in the worst case, dismissal, which means a catastrophe for most people without other social security. In addition, most workers cannot assert any rights without an employment contract.

A minimum wage was introduced in Bangladesh for the first time in 1994. After bitter protests, this was raised slightly in 2010. But the collapse of the Rhana Plaza factory building in April 2013 shows that the demands for more safety in the textile industry are more urgent and necessary than ever before. An increase in the minimum wage does not change this, especially since many seamstresses do not benefit from it due to a lack of an employment contract. According to a report by the Clean Clothes Campaign, only two out of 45 international clothing companies pay anything close to a living minimum wage.

Anyone who takes to the streets in Bangladesh to defend themselves against exploitation and oppression must expect violent police repression. Only recently has it been allowed to form a union there without having to rely on the employer's permission.

What remains is a paradox: We fight for women's rights, campaign for equal wages, gender equality and 'female empowerment' with slogans of 'the future is female', while the shirts on which these principles are written are made by exploited women Women who live below the subsistence level are sewn. Women whose protests are stifled by violence. Their demands are still the same ones that underpinned the birth of the women's movement in the fashion industry more than 100 years ago: better pay, more job security, shorter working hours.

There is at least one small ray of hope that should not go unmentioned at the end: For a few years now, some fair fashion has also been produced in Bangladesh. But this should be viewed with the full awareness that ultimately it comes down to all of us - the fashion brands and the consumers, who decide whether the centuries-old demands of women in the fashion industry worldwide are heard or not.

Book recommendation: If you would like to read more about the topic, we recommend the book Fashionopolis – the price of fast fashion and the future of clothes by Dana Thomas . It was published by Penguin in 2019 .





4* Firmencheck 2019: Living wages in the global fashion industry, page 4:


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