This International Women’s Day, women around the world took the day off work, wearing red, refusing to shop, or did some combination of the three for “A Day Without a Woman.” While the strike got a lot of media attention, though, there have been big questions about what it would really accomplish.
Organizers have argued that a women’s strike will represent a “feminism of the 99 percent” — one that works for “women in the formal labor market, women working in the sphere of social reproduction and care, and unemployed and precarious working women,” not one that offers feel-good, corporate messages about empowerment or “leaning in.”
But many critics of the strike, and even participants, weren’t so sure that it would really work for the 99 percent. 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 actually for?
Was this just “A Day Without a Privileged Woman”?
Many women who told me they went “on strike” did so by taking paid time off — and said they felt conflicted about that, because it’s simply not a luxury that many women have.
If women who don’t have cushy benefits or an understanding boss tried to take the day off work, they were taking a real risk. There are no legal protections whatsoever for walking off the job in the US unless you have a specific grievance about your own workplace, as Bryce Covert pointed out at ThinkProgress.
Organizers of A Day Without a Woman (who also organized the successful Women’s March on Washington) acknowledged this. They said there were many ways to participate without taking the day off of work — wearing red, for instance, or refusing to spend money, or starting conversations about gender parity in the workplace. They said that many women may be unable to strike, like mothers, members of vulnerable communities, or health care workers who might be hurting women more than they help by leaving work. “We strike for them,” a statement on the strike’s website reads.
But questions and criticisms about the strike being “privileged” persist.
Meghan Daum argued in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that A Day Without a Woman was really going to be “A Day Without a Privileged Woman”: a day without “women who can afford to skip work, shuffle childcare and household duties to someone else, and shop at stores that are likely to open at 10 and close at 5.”
Similar critiques, oddly enough, came from both the right and the left. Many liberals worried whether the strike would truly represent or help the marginalized women it claimed to. Meanwhile, conservative columnist Erick Erickson argued that the “leftist” women who would participate in the strike are not only “sore losers,” but also “extraordinarily privileged.”
Supporters of the strike say these critics are missing the point, though. As reproductive justice advocate Michelle Kinsey Bruns argued on Twitter, this view ignores both the history of organized strikes, and the role that privileged people can play as allies:
The 20,000+ mostly-female garment workers who staged a massive strike in 1909 weren't privileged. https://t.co/7yk0U26bRL— ClinicEscort (@ClinicEscort) March 8, 2017
The garment workers DID get a hand from a "mink brigade" of very wealthy ladies. They used their privilege to amplify the strikers' message.— ClinicEscort (@ClinicEscort) March 8, 2017
Labor reporter Sarah Jaffe argues that the idea of a strike being “privileged” doesn’t really make sense — after all, labor strikes are what gave us the weekend and the eight-hour workday. All strikes are inherently risky, Jaffe says, but they’re also one of the only reliable ways that working people can advocate for themselves as a group:
Some strike basics: strikes are the power that workers have in a capitalist economy. Refusing work demonstrates the value of your work (1/3)— Sarah Jaffe (@sarahljaffe) March 7, 2017
Strikes necessarily come with risks. They are a power play. They are not a gift from your nice employer or a perk of a good job. (2/3)— Sarah Jaffe (@sarahljaffe) March 7, 2017
Low-wage workers have BEEN striking. Google "Fight for $15" and "Walmart strikes." They took a risk. That's what striking is. (3/3)— Sarah Jaffe (@sarahljaffe) March 7, 2017
Indeed, low-wage workers have been going on strike from fast food jobs and Walmart for several years now, walking out of work to protest poor treatment and demand a livable wage of $15 an hour. These workers often risk their jobs to do so — and they’re also frequently led by women, who make up two-thirds of the low-wage workforce.
Fight for 15, which has led many of these strike efforts, chose International Women’s Day to announce a new sexual harassment lawsuit against Burger King:
The key word for whether the strike succeeds isn’t “privilege.” It’s “solidarity.”
Meanwhile, big labor unions like the AFL-CIO mostly shared messages of solidarity with A Day Without a Woman. They didn’t call on their members to strike (doing so could be legally problematic), but they showed support and called attention to the important role that women have played in the history of the labor movement.
Solidarity is a key concept to the labor movement, and to the left and progressives in general.
It means something more than just “showing support.” It means actively aligning your own interests with someone else’s. It means affirming that you’re working for the same goals and fighting the same battles, side by side.
"Today I strike for every woman who, like me, couldn’t pull together enough money to afford college, or went into massive debt, but still isn’t paid as much,” said Nelini Stamp, national membership director of the Working Families Party, in a statement. “I strike for every incarcerated woman, because women are the fastest-growing population of people behind bars. I strike for every woman in a family torn apart by deportations, and for every woman told, in ways large and small, that she was less than a man.”
Solidarity arguably has a lot in common with the concept of “intersectionality,” as divisive as that term can be among feminists and anti-feminists alike.
Intersectionality recognizes that the challenges facing a white woman (like experiencing sexism) are often fundamentally different from the challenges facing a black woman (like experiencing the unique combination of sexism and racism), even though the two may have many things in common as women. A black lesbian will have still other unique challenges. So will a Latina immigrant. And so on.
People often criticize intersectionality for creating divisions or focusing on differences. But in fact, intersectionality can help social movements thrive if it’s used right. It’s about working to truly understand differences, standing together with others across those differences, and listening to those whose voices are less often heard.
“We’re all part of the movement, we’re all part of the resistance,” Women’s March organizer Bob Bland told Vox in an earlier interview. “As opposed to only working with the partners we're familiar with, what the Women’s March did was really break down silos between a lot of the different groups, and allow us all to collaborate and cooperate with each other at a magnitude not previously seen.”
Kimberlé Crenshaw, the law professor at UCLA and Columbia School of Law who invented the term “intersectionality,” spoke on a panel with Women’s March organizers following the march on Washington in January. She said that practicing intersectionality was like becoming “multilingual” — learning to speak the language of people who have struggles different from your own, and allying yourself with their struggles.
“It’s about who talks about me, or who speaks of me, or who invokes my name when I’m not in the room,” said Women’s March organizer Linda Sarsour on the panel. “So when I’m sitting at a table, you’d better believe I’m talking about black women, and undocumented women. You’d better believe I’m talking about reproductive rights. And when I’m not in the room, I want you to invoke my name and say, ‘We’re going to stand with our Muslim sisters and brothers, we’re not going to let anything happen to them.’”
“Women’s work” means many different things today. But all women’s work is systematically undervalued.
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.
The idea of women demonstrating true solidarity with each other as working women is a bit complicated in the modern era. Women are no longer united by really big, obvious violations of their rights like being forbidden to vote, for instance.
And while many women have climbed the ladder of achievement in society, plenty of other women have been left behind. How can a woman who’s fighting to become a CEO truly align her struggles with a woman who can’t afford child care despite working two jobs, for example? Too often, that doesn’t happen.
This is a common critique of the “lean in” style of feminism popularized by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, for instance — that it’s too focused on individual achievement, and not focused enough on identifying and fixing systemic problems.
But even if the concept of “working women” isn’t a very unified one, there is one big reason for women CEOs and low-wage working women to find solidarity.
Women’s work is systematically devalued at every level, both economically and socially, whether it’s in the home or in low-wage work or in the corporate boardroom.
The gender wage gap is real — not every woman makes 80 cents to the dollar of what every man makes, of course; that figure is a big-picture average of all full-time workers. But women still make men who have the same job title, and often lack the same opportunities men do to get promotions and raises.
Research has found that woman-dominated industries (like child care work or domestic work) tend to pay less, male-dominated industries tend to start paying less once women enter them, and woman-dominated industries tend to start paying more once men enter them.
In every workplace, including the home, 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, because they know those tasks won’t get done otherwise.
Meanwhile, women tend to get paid less for all that trouble, or not get paid at all. And women of every class can experience sexual harassment, sexual assault, and other forms of gender discrimination.
Many women are privileged, but all women lack some amount of privilege simply because they are women. Being a woman with privilege doesn’t have to mean acting like one. And one way that A Day Without a Woman can succeed is if privileged women made a statement that other privileged people have no choice but to listen to.