Listen to “Bread and Roses,” the Song That Defined the Women’s Labor Movement
The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.
Labor union leader Rose Schneiderman (1882-1972) was a firebrand of organizing and advocacy within the early women’s movement. She originated the phrase “bread and roses” in a speech rallying women to fight for more than just the bare necessities. The phrase would go on to inspire a poem and one of the most famous songs in American history.
A Jewish immigrant from Poland, Schneiderman was a force to be reckoned with as she fought to improve women’s working conditions, gain universal suffrage, and establish fair labor practices. Her speeches have a timeless quality that make me want to take to the streets with a red flag in hand.
While the dire conditions 20th century female laborers faced in the United States may have improved, many of the themes Schneiderman touches upon are still more than relevant, and could be voiced today:
Every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us.
Public officials have only words of warning to us – warning that we must be intensely peaceable…The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable.
— Rose Schneiderman at a 1911 memorial for the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire
Schneiderman’s most remembered sentiment emerged as she advocated for women to receive the right to vote. Women deserved more than base subsistence—all women, she argued, had a right not just to bread, but to roses.
What the woman who labors 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. 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.
The idea that the poorest and most downtrodden should be permitted “the sun and music and art” as much as the privileged was galvanizing at the time. It became a rallying cry, and in 1911 the writer James Oppenheim was inspired to compose a poem based on Schneiderman’s words and drive.
In 1912, a strike by women textile workers in Massachusetts that was met with particularly brutal oppressive tactics became known as “The Bread and Roses” strike, as they fought for enough to eat but also for dignity. The call to arms for fair labor still surrounds Schneiderman and Oppenheimer’s ideas to this day.
As we come marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill-lofts gray
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing, “Bread and Roses, Bread and Roses.”
As we come 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.
Oppenheim’s poem would later be set to music, and the resulting song was used not just by women but by the broader labor movement at large—as a universal slogan of the fight for equality. In modern times it has been recorded by many artists including Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Ani DeFranco, and John Denver. Its origins in feminist history are celebrated as a yearly ritual at Mount Holyoke college, where graduating seniors sing the song.
Schneiderman’s powerful words have not been forgotten. And on a day like today, we should all be singing them. Enjoy the sun and music and art.
You can listen to some of these versions below, and when you do, remember Rose Schneiderman and her compatriots who helped to make International Women’s Day not just a reality, but a necessity.
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