Why Some Women Feel Excluded From the Strike
Which highlights the reason we're striking in the first place.
Photo by Rosemary McManus
On March 8, women around the world are striking. For equal pay and reproductive autonomy; to stop sexual assault, protest all bigotry, and expand social welfare programs; to get a little more respect, because, God knows, we deserve it. I will not be working, but not for any of those reasons. Unconcerned with specific dates when my boyfriend asked what day he should pack up the only life he's ever known to move across the country and into my apartment, I said, "Whenever." Turns out, I'm spending the day of this strike at home for a man. Shit.
The International Women's Strike—organized by the same group as the massively successful post-inaugural Women's March, which in DC alone had three times as many people as Trump's inauguration—asks all women, regardless of employment status, to participate to varying degrees. If you can, ditch work. For women with jobs that don't offer paid leave or unionization, or for women who are unemployed, they suggest wearing red to show solidarity, abstaining from unpaid work like chores, organizing boycotts "of companies using sexism in their advertisements or approach to workers," and "strik[ing] from gender roles"—whatever that means.
Many women are inspired by the strike—Klementyna Suchanow, who is organizing the event in Poland, described participants to the Guardian as a global "army of women" who are forcing the world to listen to them. But there's a fair amount of skepticism attached to the event as well. Even before I realized I had accidentally booked a major relationship milestone on March 8, I wasn't intending to take the day off from work. Though the strike's slogan is "A Day Without Woman," I figured enough women would be performing both paid and unpaid labor on March 8—a working single mom, for example, doesn't necessarily have a choice as to whether or not to perform chores or childcare let alone the job she gets paid for—for that to be pretty much impossible. Most women can't skip out on their jobs or the massive amounts of largely invisible unpaid labor they perform in the name of solidarity, so I wasn't convinced this event would have the discernible impact of strike. It didn't feel like a traditional strike at all, but rather, another protest.
Though its call to action identified the day as explicitly "anti-capitalist," it is only loosely a "strike" in the more formal sense of the word. "It's important to distinguish between a work stoppage—which is important and good—and a strike, which is a strategic tactic used by workers in collective bargaining or in pressuring their employer to meet very specific goals," Julia Carmel, a community organizer in New York, explained to me. "I don't think it is a strike. It's more like an international day of action/resistance, and I strongly support it in that capacity."
Labor strikes are generally understood as a large group of employees collectively refusing to work until their concrete and achievable demands are met. The United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, one of our nation's biggest unions, explains on its website, "Strikes are powerful for a simple reason: The only thing the boss wants from workers is labor. Withhold that, and the business grinds to a halt. It's powerful leverage; so powerful in fact, that a credible threat of a strike is often just as potent as a strike itself."
But what happens when your labor is largely invisible, overlooked, and necessary to society but only benefits you, your loved ones, or you dependents? If we are following this more traditional definition of a "strike," only women privileged enough to be able to take time off work (both paid and unpaid) can legitimately participate and make their absence felt. Wearing red to work, though a symbol of solidarity, isn't the same thing as striking, nor should it be regarded as such. How do you strike from the unpaid "labor" of being an adult woman with responsibilities? Is emotional labor OK? What about helping my boyfriend move into my apartment? If I don't wash my dishes on March 8 in the name of feminism, what does that really do for the cause if no one is around to witness it?
I spoke to a number of healthcare and childcare workers who did not support the Women's Strike because they didn't feel included or necessarily comfortable with the idea of abstaining from work. Ashlyn Clark, who works as a nurse at an understaffed hospital in Kansas, told me she feels conflicted about the strike "as a feminist."
"My concern is that, if I participated in the strike, I would not only probably lose my job or face disciplinary action, but I'd also be betraying my female working-class co-workers who simply would not see the act as one of solidarity," she said. "Nurses around here are nowhere near any kind of union or organizing movement. We are just trying to work together and survive with our licenses intact."
Alix Jason, who works at a residential foster-care center, expressed similar concerns. "If I got fired [for striking], my overworked and underpaid wonderful co-workers would be even more overworked and underpaid," she told me. "The question I have to ask myself about participating in this strike is whether my absence at work is more profound than my presence. I would like to think that what I do at work is more meaningful than this probably unsuccessful march."
Of course, striking is powerful, and although the impact of the day won't be felt everywhere, it doesn't mean it's useless. A resident of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, might feel the strike's effects more acutely since 75 percent of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School district employees are women, and the superintendent has preemptively canceled classes on March 8. While this may seem like a win for feminism on the surface, the Women's Strike, unsurprisingly, has been criticized for only being available to privileged women. Prominent internet feminist Sady Doyle penned an op-ed for Elle examining what the work of women is, best summarized by its headline, "Women: Go Ahead and Strike, but Know that Many of Your Sisters Can't." Magally A. Miranda Alcazar and Kate D. Griffiths pushed back on Doyle's accusations of privilege in the Nation, accurately noting, "Striking is not a privilege. Privilege is not having to strike." Which brings us back to the problem of marketing this protest as a strike—it alienates women who can't strike, and also those who don't believe abstaining from their job is the best way to achieve these demands.
In a persuasive defense of the International's Women's Strike for n+1, Dayna Tortorici wrote, "The real reason we devalue women's work is because women are the ones who do it," then cited some pretty damning wage-gap statistics. When it comes to unpaid labor that many don't even consider "work," like childcare and housework, she argued, "We will know what unwaged labor does for society by how much people miss it when it's gone."
But practically, many women without salaried positions weren't even sure how they'd participate. "I'm freelance and also job hunting, so it'd hurt me too much financially to not work," writer and editor Rosemary Donahue explained to me. "My striking wouldn't actually cause an absence in any work environment, because I work from home, which is one of the major points of the strike anyway — to show what things are like without women."
Tortorici also reflected on the history of successful women's strikes, noting, "Polish women went on strike last October to protest a proposed abortion ban, the historically far-right Polish government voted down the legislation 352–58, with 18 abstaining." She importantly argued that Sady Doyle's claim that the Women's Strike is only accessible to privileged women "helps no one. Instead, it places some women's fear of hypocrisy over the needs of those they might join." This is certainly an accurate assessment in some cases, but I don't think the women I spoke to rejected the strike because they were afraid of being hypocritical. Rather, striking for a day would put them in a sticky situation financially or harm their co-workers and/or patients.
In the New Yorker, Jia Tolentino pointed out that the two school districts that had to shut down on Wednesday as a result of the strike have already brought up important issues: "the indispensability of these school districts' female employees, the inextricability of their work from the community's functioning, and the seriousness and commonality of women workers' concerns." Acknowledging the day is by no means perfect, Tolentino wrote, "a strike illuminates the system in which it takes place, and the messy space between perfection and failure within which change tends to happen."
Framing March 8 as a strike is undeniably useful—it forces us to think about the work that women do. Women make infinite essential contributions to society that are so unacknowledged and interwoven into its daily functioning that it almost feels impossible to opt out of them. While some women who do important work are understandably incensed by the suggestion of stopping work today, the strike gives us room to talk about why that is and the significance of what they do.
Not all women blame their jobs for their oppression, and many think skipping out on work, a fundamental right we worked very hard to earn, isn't a good vehicle to achieving larger goals of liberation. That's OK. We're feeling the strike's impact already. We're talking about it, and women's labor. A lot.