Arise, ye prisoners of starvation, and make merry while ye May

Some people celebrate May Day like this, with May Poles, and white dresses, flowers, strawberries and cream, plays, singing, and drinking, drinking, drinking:





While other people commemorate it like this:

by calling it International Workers’ Day, with red flags, marches, calls for for justice, songs of solidarity (and perhaps drinking, drinking, drinking).  It’s good to hear that some people are celebrating May Day as a day of worker solidarity, with marches against the war and for immigrant workers’ rights.  And let’s all hope for a violence-free day in Los Angeles.  (h/t to reader John Burke for the inspiration and news on this year’s labor actions in San Francisco.)

It’s interesting to note the simultaneous revival of Elizabethan May Day revels at elite women’s colleges in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the emergence of May Day as International Worker’s Day, which was founded in 1891 in part to commemorate the Haymarket Riot in Chicago in 1886.  I suppose those wealthy industrialist fathers of students at Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, Vassar, and Mount Holyoke were very interested in turning May Day into a spring festival that celebrated a romanticized European past rather than present-day industrial labor.  There are also interesting class and gender issues at work here in this juxtaposition, with the gentle Elizabethan tradition being revived among elite college-educated women (not that these “New Women” weren’t also subversive in their own way, of course), versus the workers’ holiday, which was usually depicted in a way that centered on laboring men, as in the image to the right.

Greenpagan has lots more examples of the iconography of International Workers’ Day from around the world in the twentieth century.  Most of the images are of male workers, but there’s an Italian postage stamp that includes a women among a trio of workers, as well as a Chinese poster that includes a woman laborer.

7 thoughts on “Arise, ye prisoners of starvation, and make merry while ye May

  1. Pingback: The Velvet Howler › Blog Archive › Happy May Day

  2. Yvonne Kapp’s excellent two-volume biography of Eleanor Marx has examples of May Day art from the British trade union and Socialist celebrations in the 1890’s, including one that explicitly mourns “E.M.A.” (Eleanor Marx Aveling.) The illustration on the Howard Fast document–it looks like the work of Rockwell Kent–is an example of the pernicious equation of “worker” with “white male industrial worker” that most 20th century Left movements have uncritically reproduced.


  3. Pingback: Feminist Law Professors » Blog Archive » Happy May Day

  4. Pingback: National day of recognition of the majority of faculty : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  5. Pingback: Happy Labor Day! | Historiann

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