Bread and Roses: the origins of a Mount Holyoke tradition

May 18, 2019 at 6:01 AM


This morning, as part of Commencement weekend, graduating seniors and alumnae will sing “Bread and Roses” at the conclusion of the Laurel Parade — a ceremony in which the graduates, donned in white, process across campus linked by two 275-yard laurel chains to the grave of Mary Lyon. But did you know that both the song and the attire that are such integral parts of the tradition are tributes to the women labor activists and suffragists of the early 20th century?

The phrase originated from a speech given by Helen Todd in 1910. Todd, a state factory inspector, joined forces with women from the Chicago Women’s Club to initiate a campaign around the state of Illinois to advocate for women’s suffrage. In her speech Todd proclaimed, “Not at once; but 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.”

American Suffragettes [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsThis concept was subsequently expanded upon by poet James Oppenheim, who incorporated the phrase into his poem titled “Bread and Roses,” which was published by The American Magazine in 1911. It was then re-published in several other magazines and quickly became an anthem for women workers across the country.

In 1912, in response to a new law that caused cuts in work hours and pay, immigrant female workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts began to strike. As the strike spread among textile mills in the area, it garnered the support and participation of over 20,000 women demanding better pay and working conditions. The strike became known as the “Bread and Roses strike,” as it appealed for both basic needs, like food, but also occasional beauty and joy in life — hence the roses.

The popularization of the phrase “bread and roses” has also been attributed to socialist union organizer, Rose Schneiderman. A passionate advocate for women’s rights, Schneiderman used the phrase in speeches that urged women to fight for more than just the bare necessities. Her speech published by the Women’s Trade Union League in their journal Life and Labor proclaimed, “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. Help, you women of privilege, give her the ballot to fight with.”

Class of 1978, Laurel Parade. Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections.In 1917, the rallying cry was set to music by composer Caroline Kolstaat and later adopted by women in the 1930s, while they supported factory workers on the picket line as they went on strike. The poem was set to music a second time in the 1970s by Mimi Fariña, the younger sister of singer and activist Joan Baez, and has since been recorded by artists from Judy Collins and Bob Denver to Ani DiFranco. This version of “Bread and Roses” was first sung as part of the Laurel Chain Ceremony by graduating seniors in 1978, who marched in the Laurel Parade with a banner that bore the words, “The common woman is as common as a common loaf of bread and will rise.” Thus began a new part of the Mount Holyoke tradition that we know and love so well.  

It is fitting that stories such as these are intertwined with the Mount Holyoke journey. Mount Holyoke’s legacy is that of empowerment and creating meaningful change in society. Our tradition of singing “Bread and Roses” serves as a reminder that this progress is thanks to the many women who have come before us and have paved the way for a better future.

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 battle, too, for men—
For they are women's children and we mother them again.
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, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient song of Bread;
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew—
Yes, it is Bread we fight for—but we fight for Roses, too.

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.

— James Oppenheim, 1911. 
Listen to the M&Cs perform "Bread & Roses"

Pictured above, from top:
■  The class of 2018 sings "Bread and Roses" during the Laurel Chain Ceremony.
■  An advertisement for a public appearance by Rose Schneiderman (American Suffragettes [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).
■  An image of the 1978 Laurel Parade, which originally appeared in the summer 1978 Alumnae Quarterly. Photo courtesy of Archives & Special Collections.


Rachel Nix ’20

Written by Rachel Nix ’20

Rachel, a politics major and sociology minor, is a marketing assistant in the Office of Advancement and a contributor to the MHC Forever blog. Hailing from West Virginia, she serves on MHC’s Admissions and Financial Aid Advisory Committee, is deeply involved with social justice initiatives and loves spending her free time with friends, reading on the green or trying to pet Jorge, the goose.