Tuesday 18 June 2019

Bread and Roses - Celia Rees

Lauren Laverne's guest on Desert Island Discs (BBC Radio 4) last week was Professor Monica McWilliams. In 1996, she helped to found, with Pearl Sagar and others, the Northern Ireland Women’s Cooperative. They came together, from different sides of the religious divide, to petition existing political parties to include women among the candidates for the Northern Ireland Forum that was being set up as part of the negotiations that would ultimately lead to the Good Friday Agreement. After receiving little or no response, they decided to form their own party, the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition and they earned two places at the negotiating table. In 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement was finally signed, Monica McWilliams became one of the 3% of women who are signatories of any kind of international peace treaty. A shocking statistic and the measure of her achievement. Even more shocking was the account she gave of the ridicule, insults, humiliation and sheer misogyny that she and Pearl Sagar had to endure while inside the debating chamber and the intimidation and threats of violence they suffered outside it. 

joan Baez and Mimi Farina

One of her choices was Bread and Roses, sung by  Joan Baez and her sister, Mimi Farina. I first heard it sung by Judy Collins and it moved me to tears, as it did now.  This peerless anthem demands, not just sufferage, equal rights, justice, decent wages and working conditions but more than that. Not just bread, but roses, too. Not just food, but beauty, culture and leisure for ourselves and for our children.  

'Bread and roses' comes from a speech made by Helen Todd, a factory inspector and campaigner for women’s suffrage, in a  line demanding: "bread for all, and roses too".

"...woman is the mothering element in the world and her vote will go toward helping forward the time when life's Bread, which is home, shelter and security, and the Roses of life, music, education, nature and books, shall be the heritage of every child that is born in the country, in the government of which she has a voice,"

— Helen Todd, 1910.

Her words were turned into a poem by James Oppenheim in 1911 and the slogan was taken up by  women workers in the successful textile workers' strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912, which became known as the Bread and Roses Strike.

Strikers, Lawrence Massachusetts

Bread and Roses

As we go 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 battle too, for men,
For they are in the struggle and together we shall win.
Our days shall not be sweated from birth until life closes,
Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread, but give us roses.

As we come marching, marching, un-numbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread,
Small art and love and beauty their trudging spirits knew
Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses, too.

As we go marching, marching, we're standing proud and tall.
The rising of the women means the rising of us all.
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.

A song by James Oppenheim

The words echo the cry heard through the centuries: from the women of Paris who led the march on Versailles demanding bread and forcing Louis XVI’s return to the city; the women who took up the same call for bread to feed their families, feed their children, and poured onto the streets of St Petersburg at the beginnings of the Russian Revolution.

The anthem was taken up by women who marched for suffrage, who led strikes and walk outs, camped out at Greenham Common, supported the striking miners. Women who have taken a leading or equal part in protests all over the world. Women who want something more than their male counterparts, something indefinable: beauty and the leisure to enjoy it, dignity, respect, what we would call quality of life. Not just food for the table, but food for the soul.

Celia Rees



AnnP said...

Yes, so true. And beautifully expressed, thank you.

Susan Price said...

Well said, that woman!

abigail brieson said...

That is beautiful. I feel both humbled and empowered.

Celia Rees said...

So pleased it struck a chord.