At least three US public school districts have announced that they are canceling classes on International Women’s Day — because too many of their teachers will be taking the day off in protest to support women’s rights.
The “Day Without a Woman” protest and general strike on March 8 has apparently attracted a lot of interest among teachers in Alexandria City Public Schools in Virginia, Prince George’s County public schools in Maryland, and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district in North Carolina. All three school districts have announced that they simply won’t have enough faculty members and staff present for the district to function on Wednesday.
In Chapel Hill-Carrboro, about 75 percent of employees are women, and a “significant” enough number of them have requested leave that the district can’t operate safely without them, according to a statement from the district. At least 300 staff members have requested leave in Alexandria City, according to a statement from superintendent Alvin L. Crawley. And as of Tuesday in Prince George’s County, the Washington Post reported, about 1,700 teachers and 30 percent of the transportation staff had asked for the day off.
All three school districts are in blue areas that voted for Hillary Clinton. But superintendents emphasized that the decision to cancel classes was not a political statement, and was not made lightly.
A Day Without a Woman, which organizers have dubbed a “general strike,” is intended to draw attention to the often invisible or underappreciated work that women do for society and the economy, and to protest President Trump’s record on women. It’s taking place alongside an International Women’s Strike in more than 30 countries worldwide.
Women and gender-nonconforming people are encouraged to wear red, take the day off from work, and avoid shopping except at small women- or minority-owned businesses. Male allies are encouraged to show support by tending to chores and child care, and by starting conversations about gender equality in their workplace.
It’s not clear how many people will participate in the strike, or how much of a visible impact it will have. But these last-minute school closures are an early sign that a lot of people are interested, and that the impacts could be quite disruptive and visible indeed.
Most protests rely on people showing up. A Day Without a Woman is doing the opposite.
A Day Without a Woman was put together by organizers of the Women’s March on Washington, who are trying to keep up the momentum of their hugely successful protest. This strike is the fourth of 10 major protest actions that the Women’s March is planning for the first 100 days of President Trump’s administration.
“A Day Without a Woman is a very different type of action than the march,” Women’s March organizer Bob Bland told Vox. “The march was all about people getting out, coming together, and showing themselves very explicitly. A strike can be very different from that.”
A strike is much more distributed and local than a huge march and rally, Bland said. People plan to take action wherever they are. And while that action will be local, people won’t even necessarily be publicly gathering in state capitols or town squares like they were at local Women’s Marches in January.
There will definitely be some outlets for public protest. The US branch of the International Women’s Strike has a website for finding and setting up local meetings with others who plan to strike. The Nation also published a somewhat more detailed list of suggestions on how to get involved from Tithi Bhattacharya and Cinzia Arruzza, two US organizers of the International Women’s Strike.
Either way, Bland said the protests will be visible in many ways — on social media, for instance, or in the sheer numbers of people who are wearing red that day.
But, Bland said, the action is just as much about women not being present as being present and visible. It’s about showing what society looks like when women don’t actively participate in it.
It’s really hard to pull off a successful general strike
Usually the point of a general strike is to do something so disruptive that daily life grinds to a halt and society can’t help but pay attention to your grievances, experts on social movements told Vox. A general strike of, say, transit workers in smallish European countries such as France can definitely accomplish that goal.
But general strikes just don’t work very well in the United States — at least not the way they used to in the 1930s. The US is too big and diverse, and union membership has been shrinking for too many decades.
But when schools close for a teacher strike, for instance, it’s incredibly disruptive. Parents may have to find alternate child care or meal arrangements, for starters. That’s why the Alexandria City district is still offering breakfast and lunch at six of its schools. (Neither of the school districts canceling classes will have to make up the day later, though, since the warm winter caused fewer snow days than usual.)
So it’s entirely possible that this strike could exceed the usual expectations for how disruptive or effective a strike can be in the US. Either way, calling this action a “strike” also has both practical and symbolic significance.
For instance, strikes are about pushing for change in the workplace. But in every workplace, whether it’s the home or the corporate boardroom, women’s work is often taken for granted.
Women tend to take on more chores and child care duties at home than men, and women are more likely than men to take on tasks at work that nobody else wants to do. Meanwhile, women tend to get paid less for all that trouble, or not get paid at all.
The idea behind a women’s general strike is that if women refuse to do all of their typical work for a day, it will force people to notice how important and underappreciated that work is.
The strike raises serious questions about economic privilege, and who can “afford” to participate
Women who walk off the job on March 8 do so at their own risk. There are no legal protections whatsoever for striking in the US unless you have a specific grievance about your own workplace, Bryce Covert pointed out at ThinkProgress. If you want to participate in a “general” strike in solidarity with other workers or to prove a political point, you’re on your own, and you may or may not have a job when you come back the next day.
That’s why some feminists have raised concerns about class and privilege around the women’s strike. If the only women who feel empowered to participate in a strike are the ones who already have secure jobs and good benefits, then who is the strike really for?
In an article for Elle about the historical context of the strike, writer Sady Doyle asked what it really means for women to go on strike in 2017 — when all women still face discrimination, but some women have opportunities that previous generations only dreamed of. This inequality, Doyle writes, can make it harder for women to really empathize with each other’s struggles when it comes to work:
In an earlier era of highly segregated career paths, a "women's strike" had a specific, tangible effect: It made invisible work visible. No women meant no food on the table, no mysteriously emptied trashcans, no one to change diapers or type letters. No women meant no sex. (Yes, going Lysistrata is a real thing—and it occasionally works.) Forcing men to handle "women's work" was the only way to get those men to admit that it existed.
Today women have better access to education and high-paying jobs than ever. But because of these changes it's harder than ever to define women's precise relationship to "work," or to pinpoint a specific problem that female workers can address through striking. Sure, we can walk out of our jobs—but we won't all be walking out of the same jobs, for the same reasons, and some of us can walk out much more safely than others.
Then again, Magally A. Miranda Alcazar and Kate D. Griffiths argued at the Nation, it’s a little strange to think of a strike as “privileged” when strikes are usually a tool of last resort for the least privileged workers. They say that our current situation is closer than we might think to the dire 1908 origins of International Women’s Day, when a group of women garment workers went on strike to demand suffrage and the right to form a union:
Unions were virtually nonexistent then, to say nothing of the brutal working conditions that resulted from their absence (146 people, mostly women, died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911). Union membership today is at a historic low (10.7 percent and decreasing in 2016). Was it a privilege for garment workers to strike then? Would it be a privilege for us to strike now?
And just because the strike could reflect elite concerns, Alcazar and Griffiths said, doesn’t mean it has to; it can also be a powerful chance for more elite women to connect with more marginalized women, and for both groups to develop more kinship and solidarity with each other.
Bland puts it another way: “Those of us who are able to strike on March 8 are striking on behalf of those who can't,” she said. “We have to be there to represent each other.”