To Strike or Not to Strike?
Contemplating Feminist Action on International Women’s Day
Returning from the Greater Lafayette, Indiana Women’s Day rally last Wednesday, I reflected on what it means to participate in such events. Observing the recent momentum around support for women’s rights and gender equality locally and around the world has been inspiring. But I found myself unsure of what to do next. How can one strike beyond attending a rally, wearing red, and avoiding consumerism? What does it mean to strike, or act in solidarity, on days like this where social pressures for (in)activity are visible and contested? Most importantly, for me, how does someone whose work involves fighting for women’s rights and gender equality reconcile withdrawing labor for a day with the goals of my daily labor?
I will start with a disclaimer. This piece is not another in a long line of articles listing possible avenues for activism or explaining ‘right’ ways to protest. Rather, here I grapple with my own uncertainty over the best way for me (and others who may identify with my position) to approach International Women’s Day (IWD).
International Women’s Day is historically rooted in labor rights movements. The first recorded Women’s Day occurred on February 28th 1909, and was organized by the Socialist Party of America to draw attention to the abysmal working conditions in the garment industry, predominantly occupied by women factory workers. So it makes sense that on IWD, women withdraw their participation in capitalist labor markets to demonstrate the intersection between women’s rights and our positions as economic actors. Refusing to engage in domestic work is part and parcel of this movement as (largely women’s) unpaid domestic labor is a necessary component of capitalist economic systems.
Widespread labor strikes have been successful in calling attention to and improving labor laws in different parts of the world. For example, women stage walk-outs in Iceland yearly to protest the gender wage gap. As powerful as strikes, marches, and rallies are, let’s be clear about this — activism is a privilege. Not all women have the ability to walk out of work without risk of losing their jobs. Not all women are equally protected from subsequent discrimination based on their participation. Not all women have economic and social support structures that allow them to abandon domestic work for the day. Dependents need to be fed and cared for, bills need to be paid, and some work cannot so easily be laid aside in solidarity. Not all women feel safe and welcome in the spaces that emerge, ostensibly to fight for their rights. Trans women, undocumented women, women of color, non-Christian women, neurodivergent women, disabled women, women with controlling and abusive partners, youth, and other marginalized women and femmes, often find themselves facing insurmountable obstacles to engaging with fellow activists and within spaces of activism. The myriad reasons why some women cannot, or do not want to participate, remind us that ideals of ‘gender equality’ are fractured and that one of the most important tasks feminists can undertake is to consistently reflect on and critique principles of inclusivity and acceptance of difference.
I am a woman who carries with me privileges other women do not. My privilege here is indicated by the fact that I have the leisure and ability to contemplate and write about the precocity of my participation. I have the ability to withdraw my labor in both the public and private spheres, without facing any hardships or repercussions. Because of my privileges, I feel an urgency to act; to do all I can to support efforts toward gender equality by standing in solidarity with those who strike, as well as those who cannot.
Yet while I have the privilege to strike, my involvement with the International Women’s Day strike is a bit of a paradox. I am a feminist anthropologist who works on issues of gender inequality and violence. My research centers on intersecting forms of oppression on the lives of refugee women. For the last eight years, I have worked in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, exploring women’s experiences of sexual and gender based violence and their interactions with humanitarian and governing bodies.
Given the type of work I do, every day of my life is a rally for women’s rights. So, what does it mean have a ‘day without a woman’ for women who do this type of work? I have taken days off from the ‘work’ I do and, to the best of my knowledge, the world has been neither better nor worse off for it. Though, the days I take off personally do not carry the symbolic weight of withdrawing my labor as they do on days that are specially demarcated for labor and rights protests.
In addition, as an academic, the temporal and compensatory aspects of my work problematize acts of withdrawing labor. Most of the work I do is unpaid so withdrawing my labor for a day does nothing to impact the financial security of my institution or advance other women’s labor rights. As a student, conducting research, publishing, and public speaking are considered part of my education and are, therefore, unpaid. I am fortunate enough to be able to financially support myself through a research assistantship working on an engineering education project at my university. In return for 20 hours of my labor per week, the university provides me tuition and fee remissions and a stipend. However, like most academic work, I can complete the duties of my position in the time and location of my choosing. Aside from occasional meetings, I have the freedom to choose to work from home, a coffee shop, or a campus office. I can decide if I want to work at 8 am or 2 am. For academics, and others who manage their own time and schedules, boycotting participation in the labor market often means rescheduling our work for different times. In academia, activism is often encouraged as a part of the life of public intellectual figures. However, activist activities and public engagement are not often highly ranked in hiring, performance, and promotion evaluations. We are still expected to produce the same amount of ‘work’ (i.e. obtaining research grants, publishing, speaking at conferences, and teaching), regardless of when and where we choose to do it. So, is a ‘day without women’ an effective protest for us when striking more or less means shifting work tasks to different days?
I do not have domestic work from which to strike. I live alone in a studio apartment and do not care for dependents. Though I do engage in the work of care for my friends, as they too care for me, I do not engage in the types of domestic labor many women do. My daily domestic work involves a routine familiar to many (but not all) graduate students. I do laundry and clean on occasion (which primarily consists of rearranging my bookshelves), and I eat whatever happens to be in my pantry and drink copious amounts of coffee (probably not ethically sourced and most definitely part of oppressive global capitalist systems that contribute to the feminization of poverty). Other than feeding myself, a day off domestic work for me is as ineffective as a day off non-domestic work.
So what are the implications of my labor choices on International Women’s Day? How do I situate the goals of my research within the goals of the women’s labor strike? Writing about my research constitutes the mundane acts of resistance in which I engage in my everyday life. If I take time to work on my writing, is this considered a betrayal of the cause? Does my withdrawal from the labor market for a day garner any meaningful positive impact?
I have spent much of the past few months reading about and discussing the merits and critiques of different activist approaches. For the recent Women’s March and Women’s Day rallies, commonly promoted merits center on visibility, awareness raising, and solidarity. Critiques include questioning the efficacy of such activities, unclear platforms and goals, and failures in inclusivity. While International Women’s Day marks an important day in the continuing legacy of women’s rights movements, we must be careful not to assign the activities of one day too much importance. We will not dismantle patriarchy or capitalism today. We will not awake to find systems of oppression, including gender inequality, crumbled at our feet tomorrow. IWD is a global moment of symbolism — a moment to celebrate all that women have accomplished, to display support for each other, and to affirm our commitment to work toward a more equitable and just world.
IWD brought me more uncertainty than resolve. But there is one thing I can be certain of; each of our tactics of (non)participation in social justice movements is intimately tied to our socio-economic positionality and our lived daily experiences. However you spent International Women’s Day, know that this day defines neither the movement for gender equality, nor your place within that movement. Achieving women’s rights and gender equality did not happen today, and it will not happen at the next march, rally, or protest. Fighting for women’s rights and gender equality is something we must all undertake in our daily lives, in the routine tasks and interactions that build the social world we occupy. Whatever your approach, know that you belong in this movement.