Note: This originally published on Quartz.
On March 8—International Women’s Day—women across the United States will have the opportunity to participate in the “A Day Without a Woman” strike. That’s a well-intentioned idea. But it’s likely that mostly privileged women will be the ones participating in the much-anticipated follow-up to January’s Women’s March. This is an unfortunate but not altogether surprising consequence of an event without a clear purpose—or an understanding of feminist history.
This week, organizers released guidelines for the nationwide strike: Take the day off from both paid and unpaid labor, avoid shopping for one day, and wear red in solidarity. “The goal 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,” the strike websitestates.
A noble idea
The idea behind the strike is a noble one. Who doesn’t want economic equality for everyone? But in practice, most American women cannot afford to opt out of either paid or unpaid labor. This fact, coupled with the very broad aims of the strike, is concerning. In terms of messaging and strategy, A Day Without a Women feels more like a second Women’s March than a coordinated national labor strike. Coming so closely on the heels of the highly successful march, the protest risks feeling like a let-down.
For one thing, momentum for the strike has been slow to build. Momentum is a critical way to garner and sustain media attention. But it also provides cover for women worried about calling out from their jobs. As any good union organizer knows, there is strength in numbers. Without this sort of collective power, a large number of working-class women may abstain from the strike because the risks of sticking out will seem to outweigh the benefits.
Women account for nearly two-thirds of minimum-wage workers in the US, and women of color account for more than half of those earning minimum wage or less. According to a recent Oxfam America study, ingrained sexism in the working world has pushed millions of women into jobs that pay low wages, provide little, if any, benefits, and often impose irregular hours. The number of these sorts of jobs, according to Oxfam, is only going to increase over the next decade. In other words, tens of millions of women have neither the benefits nor the flexibility to take the day off in protest.
The organizers acknowledge that many women will be unable to refuse to work on the appointed date. As the website notes: “Many women in our most vulnerable communities will not have the ability to join the strike, due to economic insecurity. We strike for them.” But this feels very much like a protest of the privileged—and frankly, unrealistic.
“Women’s work” is real work
Even the idea of refusing to participate in unpaid labor is unfeasible for many women, especially those without limitless resources. Unpaid labor is, still, labor. Those of us who shoulder caregiving responsibilities cannot just up and leave children, elderly family members, and others without a support network in place willing to pick up our slack. As a mother whose husband works long hours away from home, how am I supposed to stop taking care of my very young children? My closest family members live hours away, and my friends have children of their own to care for.
Believe me, I’d love nothing more than to abdicate my parenting responsibilities in solidarity with the strike. But in order for me to strike at home, I would have to hire help—which is itself antithetical to the premise of “A Day Without A Woman,” given that my babysitters are female. (And I suspect this holds true for many other families). At the very least, I suppose, I could order dinner that night instead of cooking and refuse to clean up after the kids. But that would only result in fewer dollars in my pocket and heart palpitations from the mess.
Looking back to move forward
So how could this strike have been approached differently? For starters, organizers would do well to learn from the successes, and limitations, of previous strikes. For example, the Women’s Strike for Equality March of 1970—organized by America’s National Organization for Women—began at 5pm in order to be more inclusive of workers. Last year, Icelandic women trimmed their workdays by two hours to reflect the gender wage gap, successfully putting “a complex issue into simple terms of hours and minutes.” These tactics enabled more women to participate, thereby potentially increasing the potency and visibility of their action.
2016 wasn’t the first time the women of Iceland went on strike, either. On October 24, 1975, 90% of Icelandic women refused to work, cook or care for children. The sheer number of participants is mind-boggling—but did not fix the nation’s gender problems overnight. And as evidenced by the 2016 strike, even in Iceland, more work needs to be done.
As empowering as strikes may feel, they tend to be most effective when they are centered on achieving a particular policy goal. Poland is one of the best modern examples of how women have used strikes to target specific policies. On October 3, 2016, tens of thousands of women across Poland went on strike to protest a restrictive abortion ban proposed in parliament. A few days later, the ban was rejected.
In contrast, it appears that for Icelandic women, as well as for the American women striking in 1970, the primary result was visibility. Flexing their economic muscles in the face of discrimination served as a call to action. Today, Iceland at least can point to its ranking atop the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report. The US, in contrast, ranks 28th out of the 145 countries surveyed. Awareness of issues like paid leave, a lack of affordable childcare, maternal profiling, and the wage gap has certainly increased, yet women are still undervalued and underpaid.
Visibility is and will continue to be incredibly important for the women’s rights movement, both in the United States and around the world. But visibility alone isn’t enough. When we rally against systemic, institutional inequality, we need concrete follow-up steps in the form of policy changes. Admittedly, this is challenging for American women, since we remain sorely underrepresented throughout all levels of government. Until we achieve parity, male allyship will continue to be a large part of the solution.
Ultimately, women need to be armed with resources beyond red clothing. We can shout about the issues and policies that underpin women’s economic inequality, but we must be able to advocate off the streets, too. Offering fact sheets, suggesting language for contacting elected officials and providing tips for effective lobbying, for instance, will go a long way to help engage women who can’t strike on March 8, but who still want to have their voices heard.