While the Iron Is Hot

This is what is meant by the phrase “the feminization of labor”: not simply that men are handed more jobs that seem effeminate in nature (menial, slogging work like data-entry or cleaning), but that men are treated poorly as workers—that is, like women. The more people find themselves indirectly employed, for instance by tech companies and temp agencies, the more they can learn from the women’s labor movements of the past, in sectors once believed to be “unorganizable” such as domestic work. In degrading women’s labor, we degrade all labor.

The case for the Women’s Strike.

Still from The Salt of the Earth.

On March 8, 2017, women in the United States will be presented with an opportunity. A worldwide strike has been called for International Women’s Day (once known as International Working Women’s Day). In more than thirty countries, women will refuse to do work—any work, paid or unpaid—that they do not wish to do. They will not cook breakfast, lunch, or dinner. They will not clean, watch children, buy groceries, drive carpool, fold clothes, wash dishes, or have sex—at least the kind of sex that feels like work. They will not work the assembly line or the phones, take your order or ring you up. They will skip shifts at hospitals, universities, and labs. They will not send emails (“sorry for the delayed response!”) or schedule appointments, braid hair, paint fingernails, or wax groins. They will wear red, march in the streets, block bridges and roads, and make demands whose fulfillment is long overdue. Equal pay. Paid parental and medical leave. Universal child care. Universal health care. Freedom from sexual abuse. Freedom from deportation. Freedom from racism. Freedom from violence.

On March 8, women in the United States will have an opportunity to join them. I’d like to make the case for why we should.

Strikes are by nature about value. To withdraw your participation in work, even for a day, is to ask others to consider the value of that work. How long can they go without it? When they lose a day of your labor, what do they lose?

For millennia, women’s contributions to society have been taken for granted, a fact that has made them difficult to see. Ever since women first entered the American workforce, not in the ’70s or the ’40s but in the 1600s, as indentured servants and slaves, their would-be waged or “productive” labor has been worth less than that of their male peers. Women’s work was and is considered “unskilled” or insignificant, less dangerous or difficult than the work men do. It has therefore been awarded less pay. But of course the real reason we devalue women’s work is because women are the ones who do it.

According to a 2009 study on labor from the journal Social Forces, whenever a considerable number of women enter a field that was once male-dominated—janitorial work, say, or design, or biology—wages in that field drop. (“It’s not that women are always picking lesser things in terms of skill and importance,” one of the researchers told the New York Times. “It’s just that the employers are deciding to pay it less.”) Meanwhile, when men enter sectors once dominated by women—computer programming, for example—pay goes up. Why? There is no “family wage” that only men can provide: in the US, the average individual’s wage, regardless of sex or gender, is no longer enough to support a family. Every year more and more women become primary- or equal earners in their households; those households should not be punished for the sex of their providers. Wage inequality is sexist discrimination, compounded for many of us by other forms of discrimination: against race, religion, sexuality, legal status. Why do employers pay women less money than men? Because they can. Why do women tolerate it? Because we’re accustomed to losing. The strike is an opportunity to collectively refuse what some would choose to see as inevitable.

Then there is the work that has no pay: the uncompensated, “reproductive” labor of keeping other people alive. Caring for children and family members, cleaning clothes, preparing meals: most people still don’t consider this “work.” Only recently have pundits, politicians, and GDP statisticians seen the political advantage of doing so. (Savvy Ivanka, having learned from Hillary Rosen’s mistake in 2012—Rosen came under fire for saying that Ann Romney, mother of five, “never worked a day in her life”—includes stay-at-home moms in her celebration of #womenwhowork. The President, meanwhile, doesn’t “do” child care. “Right,” he said sarcastically to Howard Stern in 2005, “I’m gonna be walking down Fifth Avenue with a baby in a carriage.”)

A strike can measure the value of work through its absence. We will know what unwaged labor does for society by how much people miss it when it’s gone. Hence “A Day Without a Woman,” the Women’s March on Washington’s slogan for the strike that echoes un día sin inmigrantes, the February 16 strike that sought to reveal how much the US relies on the immigrants it now seeks to deport in ever greater numbers, among them millions of women. “Why is producing cars more valuable than producing children?” as Silvia Federici asked Judith Shulevitz in the Times last year? It’s an old question, one that gets answered anew by each generation. The Women’s Strike presents another opportunity to pose it to ours.

Being about work, the Women’s Strike is also about money. Implicit in the gesture of striking is a question about economic inequality—inequality between men, women, and gender nonconforming people, but also between women. When we join other women in a general strike, we do not do so on equal terms. Some of us risk more in not working than others, and for some of us the risk is too much. Some see this as an insurmountable obstacle to women’s unity. This point was made recently by Sady Doyle in an op-ed on the Women’s Strike for Elle, under the finger-wagging headline “Go Ahead and Strike, but Know That Many of Your Sisters Can’t.” The implication seemed to be that privileged women should feel guilty for striking, and therefore abstain. Doyle endorses the strike, and calls women’s strikes “exciting for their promise to unify feminist theory and revolutionary practice.” But she also argues that “Without a specific, labor-related point, after all, a ‘strike’ is just a particularly righteous personal day.”

This argument, as Doyle herself concedes (“True, part of the point of a strike is for middle- and upper-class women to stand in solidarity with working-class and poor ones”), is based on false premises. The alternative course of not striking—preserving one’s daily status quo, espousing instead “a kind of guilty, stagnant solidarity of intention,” as Magally Miranda Alcazar and Kate D. Griffiths write in the Nation—helps no one. Instead, it places some women’s fear of hypocrisy over the needs of those they might join—including members of teachers’ unions, SEIU, the Movement for Black Lives, and more who have committed to strike. “Striking is not a privilege,” Alcazar and Griffiths write. “Privilege is not having to strike.” The Women’s Strike asks its participants to consider their role in economic inequality, and to consider their feminism’s role in it, too.

The Women’s Strike isn’t undermined by the fact of difference. The aim is not to present women as already equal in standing or opportunity, despite our right to be. By withdrawing my work, I show my place in the larger economy; when we all do (or don’t), we invite one another to see how our work is interdependent, see the ways we are compelled to exploit one another. And when we see it, we may be able to say with confidence—as the beneficiaries and the exploited speaking together—that this is not the system we want.

In a society organized around the accumulation of private wealth at the expense of collective well-being, the liberation of one class of women comes at the expense of another. Middle-class wives purchase freedom from housework through the availability of domestic labor offered by third world women of color—labor that often comes with abuse, no protections, and no benefits. But this zero-sum equation of women’s freedom is a choice we consent to as a society, and therefore one we can refuse. The obstacles to a more egalitarian, inclusive feminism are ours to clear.

What stands in the way? For starters, as Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Hochschild argue in Global Woman (2002), government stinginess in public services. America isn’t Already Great, but it’s certainly already rich. The US could have the greatest parental leave program in the history of the world; it just chooses to spend that money on drones and carriers. National efforts to expand early childhood education have yet to address the child-care needs of children aged 0 to 4—children whose parents have jobs they cannot afford to lose. There will be no gender equality without paid parental leave, paid sick leave, or free and accessible child care for all. There will be no equality between women without these social provisions for all. Demands do not get much clearer than this. This is why we strike.

The first women’s strike was devised as a comedy. In Aristophanes’s Lysistrata (411 BC), the women of the Greek city-states refuse not work, but sex (“cock”!), to persuade their husbands to end the Peloponnesian war. Despite hopeful contemporary readings, this is not a feminist play. Everyone returns to their oikos and women still can’t go to Assembly. The premise itself is meant to be comedic (a women’s strike—can you imagine?). It’s not hard to imagine people seeing this Women’s Strike, too, as a joke.

But there are real historical precedents that attest to the strength of the strategy. Countless labor strikes in the US have been led and carried out by women: the Lowell Mill women’s strikes of 1834 and 1836; the Atlanta Washerwoman’s strike of 1881; the “bread and roses” textile workers’ strike of 1912; the Mexican American miner’s strike of 1950–52, during which women picketed on men’s behalf because a court injunction banned them from the line (this later became the basis of The Salt of the Earth, a classic of “Red” Hollywood). The more recent history of women’s general strikes is just as rich. In 1975, 90 percent of Icelandic women went on strike. As Annadis Rudolfsdottir recalls in the Guardian,

Iceland’s men were barely coping. Most employers did not make a fuss of the women disappearing but rather tried to prepare for the influx of overexcited youngsters who would have to accompany their fathers to work. Some went out to buy sweets and gathered pencils and papers in a bid to keep the children occupied. Sausages, the favourite ready meal of the time, sold out in supermarkets and many husbands ended up bribing older children to look after their younger siblings. Schools, shops, nurseries, fish factories and other institutions had to shut down or run at half-capacity.1

After 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. On March 8, Irish women will strike to oppose their own country’s abortion ban.

The historic turnout at the Women’s March on Washington indicates that the majority of American women reject President Trump’s chauvinist administration, the strength of his white female base notwithstanding. At the root of that rejection is the obviousness of his disregard for women and their rights. The President is a self-described sexual abuser and an accused rapist. Multiple members of his cabinet have been accused of beating their wives. The Vice President has made a concerted effort to halt federal funding to Planned Parenthood, an organization that provides hundreds of thousands of women with essential reproductive health care including abortions.

It’s reasonable to ask whether now is a good time for a women’s strike. This is a revanchist administration that doesn’t appear to respond to demands. And there are arguably more urgent needs to attend to—the safety and support of Muslims, immigrants, and trans people who are under attack.

But millions of Muslims, immigrants, and trans people are women, and we strike as them and for them. It is never a bad time to demand what you need. Our bleak political situation has freed us from the constraints of being “reasonable,” of imagining solutions that play by the enemy’s rulebook. There is a new audience for new arguments—a ready population of people willing to think more deeply about the larger forces structuring their lives. (“I see myself as a product of my choices, not a victim of my circumstances,” Kellyanne Conway recently said at the CPAC, presenting a false binary between what we inherit and what we make of it. We are products of our choices and our circumstances—and can be victims of both as well.) By situating those questions in the context of work—of labor—the Women’s Strike presents an opportunity to engage them in a way the March on Washington, as the first major protest of the Trump Administration, had little room to do.

Finally, the Women’s Strike is not only about women. The effort to break unions and make labor more “flexible” has forced an unprecedented number of us into labor conditions that were once, as Maria Mies has written, “typical for women only.” This includes work not covered by trade unions, work without a proper contract or means of collective bargaining, work that falls outside the protections of labor laws.

This is what is meant by the phrase “the feminization of labor”: not simply that men are handed more jobs that seem effeminate in nature (menial, slogging work like data-entry or cleaning), but that men are treated like shit as workers—that is, like women. The more people find themselves indirectly employed, for instance by tech companies and temp agencies, the more they learn from women’s labor movements of the past in sectors once believed to be “unorganizable,” such as domestic work or waitressing. In degrading women’s labor, we degrade all labor.

Men of America! Support this strike. If a woman you know wants to strike, have her back. Pick up any essential work they don’t want to neglect “just to make a point”: watch their kid, check on their parents, cook them dinner, run their errand. Remember that we also strike for you.

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/oct/18/gender.uk 

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