The history behind the 'bread and roses' theme to the London Women's March (2022)

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"The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too." These were the words uttered on April 2, 1911 by a young Polish-born immigrant woman at a meeting at New York's Metropolitan Opera House.

108 years later, the words "bread and roses" are the rallying cry at Women's March London — which organisers are dubbing the "Bread and Roses March and Rally". Protestors will wield flowers as they march from Portland Place to Trafalgar Square on Jan. 19 and they're being encouraged to donate to local food banks.

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Rose Schneiderman was speaking in the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire — one of the deadliest industrial disasters in U.S. history which killed 146 workers — 123 of whom were women aged between 14 and 23. "What the woman who labours wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art," Schneiderman said, addressing a crowd of mostly privileged women. "You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too. Help, you women of privilege, give her the ballot to fight with."

So, why is a century-old political slogan the defining message of 2019's Women's March in London? Huda Jawad, one of the organisers of the London chapter of the global movement, told us that Schneiderman's speech is just as relevant today as it was 100 years ago. "She was talking in her speech about how rich women should be aware of the privileges they have and that things like art, music, fun, and culture should be enjoyed by workers as well as the privileged," says Jawad.

The history behind the 'bread and roses' theme to the London Women's March (1)

Portrait of feminist and labor union leader Rose Schneiderman (1882 - 1972).Credit: Interim Archives/Getty Images

"What was really amazing about Rose is that she was a Jewish Polish immigrant in America, she was also a lesbian, she never had children, she was one of the first women to organise the Labour movement in America," says Jawad. "She had to drop out of school to go to work in a factory because her father died. She could have done really well had life treated her equally, had she had the privilege of being born in the right family."

This isn't the first time the 'bread and roses' motto has been employed by activists. Just one year after her seminal speech, Schneiderman's phrase was adopted by protestors at the 1912 Textile Strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts — a strike comprising mostly immigrant women workers.

Jawad says that strike was "mainly led by immigrant women" who worked in factories from a diverse array of backgrounds. "It was really a collection of all of the women who worked in the factories who basically asked for fair wages, better working conditions, and rights to go to the toilet," says Jawad.

The history behind the 'bread and roses' theme to the London Women's March (2)

During the Bread and Roses Strike, troops hold strikers at bay with rifles and bayonets, Lawrence, Massachusetts, January 1912.Credit: PhotoQuest/Getty Images

And it's this message that is at the heart of this year's rally. The idea that all women — be they women of colour, trans women, queer women, disabled women, immigrants, refugees, privileged women, and white women — shouldn't just have access to the rudimentary items needed to survive, they also have the right to art, culture, and dignity.

The idea to name this year's Women's March after Schneiderman's speech came when Jawad and her fellow organisers were sitting around a kitchen table discussing the issues women in the UK are encountering at present. "Someone said, why don't we call it 'bread and roses,'" says Jawad.

The timing of this year's march — which falls at the end of a particularly seismic week in the run-up to the UK's exit from the European Union — has set the tone for this year's march. Whereas the first march was a global reaction to the election of Donald Trump as POTUS, this year's British iteration of the march will focus on causes closer to home —namely, Brexit and the era of austerity which began after the financial crisis and period of economic recession which ensued.

"We wanted a rallying call to celebrate difference but also to recognise that there are different levels of privilege within society, particularly with women," says Jawad. "We wanted to put women at the centre of discussions about austerity, Brexit, and poverty."

So, is Brexit a feminist issue? Jawad says that Brexit "should indeed" be looked upon as a feminist issue. "When you read or see a news report on Brexit, it's often talked about in very abstract terms, and doesn't explain how a mother on a minimum wage can be impacted by that." She feels that "women's voices have been missing" and that the "impact on women is conspicuously absent" in politicians' and the media's analysis of Brexit.

The history behind the 'bread and roses' theme to the London Women's March (3)

Women gather for Time's Up Women's March on January 21, 2018 in Westminster, London.Credit: David Nash / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

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100 years on from its first utterance, what does "bread and roses" mean for women taking to the streets of London this Saturday? Jawad says the 21st century meaning of the phrase is: "the struggle continues." "Regardless of how society develops economically, or politically, or even technologically, we know that the system is structured in a way that will always put women and minoritised people behind men —and a particular type of man," says Jawad.

"That is to say that the structure that leads to misogyny, hate, and phobia is still present and hasn't been removed from society whatever progress we've made, so we still need to do work but also recognise there are now, more than ever, more opportunities to enjoy the roses," says Jawad. "There may be more access to roses, but not everyone can buy them. It's important that we create a space where we share in each others' riches, privilege, but also recognise that we as individuals can do something about it."

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While women are facing different issues today than they were 100 years ago, there are also commonalities between women then and now.

"Whereas bread and roses was originally a group of migrant women organising together to call for better conditions of a factory, of an employer, this bread and roses is about us, as an intersecting movement, calling for better conditions from our political leadership and pledging to do it of each other," Jawad added.

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FAQs

What is the meaning behind Bread and Roses? ›

The phrase bread and roses is used to express the belief that everyone should have access not only to basic sustenance, but also to the finer things in life, such as education, art, literature, etc. —Cf. also the phrase bread and circuses.

Where did Bread and Roses take place? ›

It is commonly associated with the textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts during January to March 1912, now often known as the “Bread and Roses strike.” The strike, which united dozens of immigrant communities under the leadership of the Industrial Workers of the World, was led to a large extent by women.

Who wrote the poem Bread and Roses? ›

Help, you women of privilege, give her the ballot to fight with." Inspired by this speech, James Oppenheim wrote the poem “Bread and Roses”, which came to be associated with the Lawrence strike so closely that it's commonly referred to as the Bread and Roses strike.

When was Bread and Roses written? ›

James Oppenheim, "Bread and Roses," The American Magazine, December, 1911.

Was the Bread and Roses Strike successful? ›

March 12, 1912: Bread and Roses Strike is Successful.

Where does the slogan We want bread but roses too come from? ›

However, the phrase "Bread and Roses" did in fact precede the 1912 strike. Originating from a speech given by suffrage activist, Helen Todd, and originally appearing in print in 1911 in the form of a poem by James Oppenheim.

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