Three historic women’s strikes that came before “A Day Without a Woman”
Events are taking place across the world Wednesday to mark International Women’s Day (IWD). Thousands of women are expected to go on strike, or leave work early, while some schools will close for the day in an attempt to show what a world without women would look like.
This groundswell of activism is thanks in part to two major internationally co-ordinated efforts: the Women’s March and the International Women’s Strike (IWS). The former – initially set up to organize protests of nearly 5 million people following Donald Trump’s inauguration – is now encouraging women to strike on IWD. The latter, with its roots in grassroots far-left activism, has expanded from initial strikes and protests for women’s rights in Poland and Argentina which took place in 2016.
The Polish strikes were provoked by government proposals to criminalize abortion – 100,00 women wearing black took to the streets to protest plans to tighten already strict laws. Women in 60 cities across the country took part, resulting in a government climbdown. Polish politician Jaroslaw Gowin said the demonstrations had “caused us to think and taught us humility.”
The Argentine strike successes were harder to measure. Organized in response to the government’s inaction regarding sexual violence, protesters called for a “cultural shift.” Women horrified by the rape and murder of 16-year-old Lucia Perez walked out of work for an hour, holding placards that said “If you touch one of us, we all react.”
The blueprint for the organized women’s march remains Iceland’s 1975 Women’s Day Off, when over 90% of Iceland’s women went on strike. A year later, equal gender pay rights were enshrined in law, and by 1980, citizens voted in Vigdis Finnbogadottir, the world’s first democratically elected female president.
Iceland’s remarkable progress was helped by its relatively small population. Joni Lovenduski, professor emeritus specializing in gender and politics at Birkbeck University, explains to VICE News. “It was completely feasible to phone up everybody and make direct contact with them without an enormous expenditure.” Lovenduski is optimistic about the present day, too: “You can now make contact with large numbers of women because of the way the internet works. And my sense is that more women will mobilize because they are getting more and more pissed off.”
As for the seemingly warring factions of the women’s movement? Lovenduski says this is nothing new: “These movements are part of a spectrum of change. I don’t see a problem of plugging in different directions; it’s a phenomenon of social movements that they’re fantastically diverse.”
In the U.K, the Women’s March London’s long-term aim is to give employers a taste of what comes next, contributor Chardine Taylor-Stone tells VICE News: “We’re at the very early stages of building a movement right now.”
It’s not quite a strike yet: “Even though it’s called a strike, it’s not the same as those organised by train workers. We’re post-Thatcherism and a lot of people aren’t even unionized so can’t afford to take time off, so we’re thinking of different ways people can do something. Symbolism is important, not everyone’s going to read Marx by next week, but people connect with symbolism.”
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the IWS, which includes “animal rights” and “grammar schools” in its thorough list of what it’s striking for and against, explains: “This is the feminism of the 99%; it’s focusing much more on issues of poverty and caring.”
Should a woman be too poor or too busy doing unpaid care work to strike, the IWS representative tells VICE News, she could also “do a part-time strike, or put a broom outside their front door, do a shopping strike, wear black or red, block roads, put a poster up in her house.”
Success, to the IWS, which is represented in the U.K. by the Global Women’s Strike, is created by increasing awareness: “It’s not necessarily about numbers, it’s about gathering together people who are doing different actions.” When asked who’s helped by the display of a broom, the representative admits to VICE News that plans are perhaps not as developed as expected because “we didn’t know about the international mobilization until recently.” But she insists: “it’s part of an international act, and if there’s enough people doing it, you can get change.”
The strike on Wednesday has indeed got international reach. An ActionAid spokesperson tells VICE News “It’s not just the Women’s March America doing it for women everywhere, it’s women in Brazil, women in Liberia, getting involved because it’s in solidarity with women. It’s not just one way; the solidarity is coming from the Global South as well.“
As for a future where millions of women could stage a one-day coordinated walkout on their responsibilities, knowing they’ll be free to return, unpunished? Taylor-Stone is hopeful, noting that Trump’s ascendancy was a red pill to those otherwise ignorant of fourth-wave feminism’s charms: “The Women’s March was, for a lot of people, their first time attending anything like this. I started a chant at the women’s march, I was like, ‘Why does nobody know this?’ Then I realised my role is to give something to those people who are around us. It’s the first-timers who are really going to be able to make mass movements, and we need to reach people like that, not the same voices we hear over and over again.”
While the grassroots movement will aim for symbols of solidarity on Wednesday, the lean-in feminists of the U.K. Women’s Equality Party (WEP) are taking time out to prepare for a later women’s strike in 2018.
WEP is concise about its strike’s methods: “It is simply a day in which women’s vital and unvalued contributions to economy, communities and culture is recognised by the act of withdrawing those contributions.” The party is liaising with unions, corporations and representative bodies to get them to support their female workforce ahead of the strikes.
“We have to think about logistics because we want this to be an action with a resonance and meaning,” their spokesperson tells VICE News: “We’re laying the groundwork carefully and methodically to get as many women as possible out. We want millions to strike. Instead of just marching or a symbolic protest like a broom outside the door, we want to make a difference.”
Cover: SIPPL Sipa USA