March 8 is International Women’s Day, which is usually celebrated in the US with a feel-good awareness campaign about the importance of women’s rights. But this year, grassroots activists around the world are planning something more radical — a women’s general strike, both to oppose President Donald Trump and to make a big push for women’s equality.
The age of Trump is the perfect time for a women’s strike, a group of feminist activists and scholars argued in a February Guardian op-ed. The massive success of the Women’s March on Washington, they said, proved that “millions of women in the United States are finally fed up not only with the blatant misogyny of the Trump’s administration, but also with decades of continuous attacks on women’s lives and bodies.”
Women’s March organizers have declared March 8 “A Day Without a Woman,” alongside an International Women’s Strike taking place in more than 30 countries that day. They’re urging US women to take the day off work if they can, or to show support in other ways if they can’t.
It’s not clear how successful the women’s strike will be — especially in the United States, where the labor movement has become relatively weak and where “general strikes” are a difficult tactic to pull off.
But even if this particular event flops, it definitely won’t be the last we hear from women who oppose Trump. Organizers of the Women’s March have already done an impressive job turning a one-day event into a longer-term movement, and A Day Without a Woman is just one of many actions to come.
What will the strike look like?
It probably won’t look like this. That doesn’t mean it won’t be effective.
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images
Women’s March organizers released some basic guidelines last week for “anyone, anywhere” who wants to participate in A Day Without a Woman:
1. Women take the day off, from paid and unpaid labor
2. Avoid shopping for one day (with exceptions for small, women- and minority-owned businesses)
3. Wear RED in solidarity with A Day Without A Woman
Male allies are also encouraged to show support by taking care of children and housework, or by starting conversations with decisionmakers in their workplace about how to promote family-friendly policies like paid leave or flexible scheduling.
All of these are things that, in theory, any individual can choose to do. If many individuals choose to do them, it could have a big impact.
Some businesses and organizations, like NARAL Pro-Choice America, are choosing to close their doors on March 8 in solidarity with the strike.
Even some cities and municipal organizations are shutting down. At least three school districts have decided to simply cancel classes that day because so many female teachers were planning to strike.
Still, it’s not clear how the overall impact can be measured. Will there will be big, visible public events associated with the strike? Will we have any idea how many women or businesses participated? How will we know if the strike was a success?
“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.”
In general, a strike is much more distributed and local than a huge march and rally, Bland said. People will just be taking 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 still thinks 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. (US organizers are urging strikers to wear red, which they chose to symbolize “revolutionary love and sacrifice” and for its historical associations with the labor movement. Organizers in other countries chose black — a nod to October’s “Black Monday” protest in Poland, when Polish women wore black, went on strike, and stopped their government from passing a near-total ban on abortion.)
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.
Organizers had good reason to call for a “strike,” and not some other protest tactic
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Calling this action a “strike” does have both practical and symbolic significance, even though strikes can be difficult to do well.
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 under-appreciated that work is.
The “International Women’s Strike” might still end up working more like a protest or a boycott than a bona fide general strike, Elisabeth Clemens, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, told Vox. But it can still be a very effective way to draw attention and energy to women’s rights.
“The name does project a sense of global solidarity, and that’s a really powerful move,” Clemens said.
Sometimes, if it’s clear that a large number of people share your grievances — that if you show up to a protest, you won’t be alone and thousands of others will join you — it can create a virtuous cycle that attracts more and more new activists who are fired up for women’s rights.
The goal is to promote a “feminism of the 99 percent”
Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images
Organizers of the International Women’s Strike say that the era of Trump demands a “feminism of the 99 percent.” They say that to be truly inclusive, the feminist movement needs to fight for both economic and social equality for women. It’s not enough just to resist Trump; women also have to resist the deeper social problems that helped Trump rise to power.
“While Trump’s blatant misogyny was the immediate trigger for the huge response on 21 January, the attack on women (and all working people) long predates his administration,” organizers and activists wrote in the Guardian op-ed calling for the women’s strike. “Women’s conditions of life, especially those of women of color and of working, unemployed and migrant women, have steadily deteriorated over the last 30 years, thanks to financialization and corporate globalization.”
They argued that many women have little use for the “lean-in” style of feminism that focuses on corporate achievement or personal empowerment — that strategies for self-promotion or negotiating the cutthroat business world won’t do much to improve the lives of women in poverty.
But one thing that can help is strong labor organizing. Strikes and other labor-focused protests are one way to fight for the rights of women stuck working in lousy, low-paying jobs, or who struggle to balance their paid work with their unpaid family responsibilities.
“Women play an indispensable role in the daily functions of life in all of society, through paid and unpaid, seen and unseen labor,” organizers said in a statement. So the goal of the strike is to “highlight the economic power and significance that women have in the US and global economies, while calling attention to the economic injustices women and gender nonconforming people continue to face.”
It’s really hard to pull off a successful general strike
A Day Without a Woman is being dubbed a “general strike,” and it’s not the only such protest that activists in the US have called for since Trump’s inauguration. A “Day Without Immigrants” strike shut down businesses across the country on February 16 — and immigrants plan to strike again on May 1. On the other hand, another general strike on February 17 didn’t draw much participation or media attention.
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 like 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.
There are also no legal protections whatsoever for walking off the job 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.”
The March 8 strikes will continue an international trend that’s been building for the past year
“Black Monday” strike demonstrators in Poland
Photo by Krystian Dobuszynski/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Global solidarity also matters here because women in foreign countries — plus some populations of vulnerable women in the US, like immigrants — have actually been staging strikes and walk-outs for months. There’s a good argument for trying to keep that momentum going and encourage it to spread further.
Some of those strikes, like the Black Friday strike for abortion rights in Poland, have been surprisingly successful. It’s possible that conservative lawmakers in the heavily Catholic country backed down on a total abortion ban because they decided that Poland’s almost-total abortion ban was already strict enough — but it was still remarkable that women made such a strong enough statement that the government decided it wasn’t worth the trouble.
In Ireland, women are striking on March 8 specifically to demand a referendum on the country’s abortion ban.
But while some women’s strikes have a very specific political purpose women have also gone on strike in countries from Argentina to Iceland to protest a range of different issues: violence against women, restrictions on reproductive rights, and gender-based inequality of all kinds. They often protest many of these issues at once.
“There is no question that the framework of organizing as women has been incredibly important and effective,” Clemens said. The category of “women” may be a big one, but it also covers a lot of ground.
For instance, when we think of combatting “violence” against women, strike organizers argue that we shouldn’t limit our imagination to things like domestic violence or sexual violence. We should also think about “the violence of the market, of debt, of capitalist property relations, and of the state; the violence of discriminatory policies against lesbian, trans and queer women; the violence of state criminalization of migratory movements; the violence of mass incarceration; and the institutional violence against women’s bodies through abortion bans and lack of access to free healthcare and free abortion.”
This intersectional way of thinking about feminism — paying attention to how different problems connect to one another, and how they can combine to harm different groups of people in different ways — was quite successful at the Women’s March.
Dana Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, told Vox she surveyed Women’s March attendees with a team of researchers. They found that an unusually high number of marchers were first-time protesters — and that they came out for a wide variety of intersectional reasons.
Most marchers (about 60 percent) said they decided to protest because of “women’s rights,” which wasn’t surprising. But more than a third of respondents said they were also motivated by either the environment, racial justice, or LGBTQ rights, and 21 percent said they were motivated by immigration.
“We’re all part of the movement, we’re all part of the resistance,” Bland said. “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.”
This is probably just the beginning of a gendered revolt against Trump
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images
When it comes to the resistance against President Trump, the future may be female.
The Women’s March hasn’t just inspired new activists to come out, Fisher said — it has also connected those activists with other groups and other ways to get involved, like showing up at town halls to urge Republicans not to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Women’s March organizers also now have a huge list of supporters who said they wanted to stay involved in activism after the march was over They’re keeping those activists busy with 10 major actions in the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency — and A Day Without a Woman is only the fourth.
In just over a month, the Women’s March has also managed to turn itself into an organization with a big email list and big potential staying power. Sure, organizers are putting a lot of effort and promotion into A Day Without a Woman — but the Women’s March should still have plenty of other tricks up its sleeve once March 8 has come and gone.
Technology has helped the Women’s March build a ton of capacity in a short time. And it’s not just Facebook and other social media; those tools are great at spreading the word about events, but not so great for long-term community organizing.
The Women’s March website and email list is managed through Action Network — a platform only available to progressive activists, and one that is specifically designed to help organizers channel scattered grassroots energy into something more focused.
“The Women’s March is a great real-world example of what we were trying to build from the beginning,” Brian Young, executive director of Action Network, told Vox. The march got started with completely disconnected grassroots Facebook events, he said — but the organizing really took off once the march had a central organizing hub where activists could register their own local events or find ones nearby.
The second of the “10 Actions for the First 100 Days” events was about helping activists organize local strategy meetings, or “huddles.” Young thinks these huddles were just as impressive and important as the original march, even though they involved fewer people overall and got almost no media attention.
“They had about 5,000 huddles. There are organizations that have been around for decades that can’t get people to come to 5,000 events,” Young said. “They had this base of support, and knew hundreds of people who were willing to step up and organize their communities.”
Technology is the one thing that could make the idea of a successful general strike in the United States seem “a bit more plausible,” Fisher said. Her research found that more people were motivated to attend the Women’s March by Facebook than by “friends and family.”
A women’s general strike is still a huge, ambitious lift, one that could easily collapse under the weight of its own expectations. But at least in the modern era, it probably has better chances of succeeding now than ever before.