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Striking for ourselves on International Women's Day

 

 

By Liz Mason-Deese

 

February 20, 2017 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Viewpoint MagazineWhen women in Argentina, and across Latin America, decided to go on strike on October 19, 2016, the mobilization surpassed all expectations. Organized in only a matter of days, the call resonated across Latin America and hundreds of thousands of women across the continent went on strike, marched, and protested. The strike was an immediate response to the brutal rape and murder of sixteen year old Lucía Perez in Mar del Plata as well as a series of other femicides and violent repression at the National Women’s Meeting in Rosario.

 

With the slogans “not one less” and “we want ourselves alive,” they were striking not only for an end to violence against women, but also to highlight the connection between this violence and the economic violence of the devaluing of women’s labor. This insistence on the relationship between male violence and the devaluing of women’s labor was one of the strike’s central messages and organizing principles.

 

The strike thus served to make women’s labor visible: formal labor and informal labor, paid and unpaid, reproductive labor, emotional labor. Women not only walked out of their workplaces to march, but they also refused to cook, to clean, to take care of children, to smile, to care. No longer only seeing themselves as victims of male violence and patriarchal institutions, women were able to witness their immense political and economic power. And this power was not left at the march, but taken home, taken to work the next day, carried with them in the street, in women renegotiating the division of household labor, calling out sexism at home and at work, leaving abusive relationships, and solidifying networks of care and support among women.

 

The strike drew a clear connection between male violence and the restrictions to women’s economic and bodily autonomy. The call for the strike emphasized how women’s economic insecurity also makes them more vulnerable to male violence, how poor women are the ones who cannot access safe and legal abortion and thus suffer the most from its criminalization, how neoliberal restructuring leaves women with more of the burden for social reproduction. While still calling for legislative reforms and more funding for government programming addressing violence and poverty, the strike also made it clear that these women were not going to wait for the state to solve their problems.  

 

In calling the October strike, these Argentinean women were also leading the way in the struggle against President Maurico Macri’s neoconservative policies. For months, the union leadership had negotiated away workers' rights and wages, avoiding a more confrontational strategy. It was thus the Argentine women who called what came to be the first general strike against Macri and one of the largest instances of opposition to this his government. Along with the focus on male violence, the strike protested price hikes to utilities and public transportation, the defunding of schools, cuts to health care and other social services, demonstrating how women are particularly affected by these policies.

 

October 19 was not the only day that women went on strike on that month. Women in Poland had carried out a strike on October 3 to protest the introduction of new anti-abortion legislation. In both cases, women in neighboring countries picked up the call and, in many cases, decided to organize strikes in solidarity that also drew attention to local women’s struggles. It was out of these recent struggles that the call originated for an international women’s strike on International Women’s Day.

 

Violence & Women’s Work

 

While women, as the history of International Women’s Day shows, have always struggled in relation to waged work and also participated in militant labor struggles with men, the women’s strike as a particular tool is powerful because it explicitly highlights the heterogeneity and the extent of women’s labor, especially reproductive labor. The wave of women’s strikes around the world in the last year has not primarily focused on issues related to employment, but has used the tactic of the strike to protest male violence and attacks on reproductive rights. The strikes have also brought the issue of the relationship between violence and economic exploitation to the forefront.

 

On October 19, Argentine women announced they were striking because:

Economic variables continue reproducing male violence: because our work days are two hours longer than men’s, because care and reproductive falls on our shoulders and is not valued in the labor market. Because unemployment is two points higher for women, because the pay gap averages 27%. That is, for equal work, women earn much less than our male comrades. In a context of structural adjustment, of tariff hikes, increasing poverty and a shrinking state as the Alianza Cambiemos government proposes, women get the worst part: poverty has a feminine face and it restricts our freedom to say no when we are inside the cycle of violence.

There is a fundamental and historical relationship between women’s reproductive roles and violence against women. Silvia Federici shows how the transition to capitalism “required the transformation of the body into a work-machine, and the subjugation of women to the reproduction of the work-force. Most of all, it required the destruction of the power of women which, in Europe as in America, was achieved through the extermination of the ‘witches.’”[1] In other words, among all the violences of primitive accumulation, we must include that violence against women, against their bodily autonomy, and the subjugation into a specific reproductive role.

 

Primitive accumulation did not imply a temporary violent episode, but constant violence against women’s bodies. Violence to keep women in their place, violence to force women to continue carrying out their reproductive role, violence to limit women’s power to organize and resist. Violence is needed to separate people from the means of their reproduction and to discourage them from creating collective forms of reproduction outside of processes of capital accumulation.[2]

 

Raquel Gutierrez Aguilar discusses women’s confinement in the domestic sphere and responsibility for reproductive tasks as what ultimately restricts our ability to be “available for ourselves,” both in terms of the labor we do and the care we provide, and in terms of our own subjectivities, to be able to fully develop according to our own desires. Neither our own labor nor our own bodies are available for us to enjoy. This is a type of violence in which as women we are not able to define ourselves or control our bodies or what they produce.[3]

 

The structure and the content of women’s labor makes is designed to make it difficult for us to be available for ourselves. This is what is made clear in Precarias a la Deriva’s extensive militant investigation with women workers in Madrid[4]. They carry out a series of derives with different women workers – domestic workers, social workers, nurses, teachers, freelance translators, sex workers – allowing them to see the city through each others’ eyes and embodied experiences of traversing the city, highlighting the heterogeneity of women’s labor, along with some common themes. They focus on precarity not as an abstract category defining a new theoretical subject, but as concrete characteristics of women’s labor when the line between labor and life is consistently blurred. They analyze precarity as a form of slow economic violence, everyday violence that puts women’s lives at risk and is embodied in stress, anxiety, and illness.

 

Precarias a la Deriva analyzes precarity in terms of new forms of employment, the displacement of the times and spaces of work, the intensification of the production process, the incorporation of imperceptible qualities (such as communication, empathy, language, attention, attitude), cuts to wages, and the loss of rights. Importantly, Precarias a la Deriva does not only discuss precarity in terms of its impact on employment, but also as a “set of material and symbolic conditions, that determine an uncertainty in terms of sustained access to the essential resources for the full development of a subject’s life.”[5] In other words, they use precarity to refer to both living and working conditions, production and reproduction.

 

The fragmented geography of women’s labor and the individual and isolating way in which we tend to experience this oppression has always presented challenges to its organization. Women work alone in their houses or those of others, at all of times of day. Women’s work takes place in distinct sites throughout the urban landscape. It takes place in hospitals, schools, factories, call centers, on the street, in the neighborhood, in the house, in the bedroom. Women’s work is often the most precarious, lacking both stability and legal protections. It is often fragmented and dispersed, both temporally and spatially. It often goes unpaid and unrecognized.

 

Why strike?

 

It is precisely this fragmented and dispersed geography of our labor that makes a women’s strike both necessary and potentially so powerful. A strike serves to make our labor visible, to show that the world cannot function without it. It also serves to build our power, to leave the places where we carry out our work in isolation and the roles that have been assigned to us, in order to find each other and organize ourselves.

 

The women’s strike takes on an especially important role in regards to domestic and care labor that goes unrecognized. In The Power of Women and the Subversion of Community, Dalla Costa and James write:

We must get out of the house; we must reject the home, because we want to unite with other women, to struggle against all situations which presume that women will stay at home, to link ourselves to the struggles of all those who are in ghettos, whether that ghetto is a nursery, a school, a hospital, an old-age home, or a slum. To abandon the home is already a form of struggle, since the social services we perform there would then cease to be carried out in those conditions, and so all those who work out of the home would then demand that the burden carried by us until now be thrown squarely where it belongs – onto the shoulders of capital….6

Even if only for one day, refusing this place and the work that has been assigned to us makes that work visible for what it is, and opens the door for demanding that the work of reproduction and care be taken on as collective responsibilities of all.

 

The strike also serves to build women’s power, both in relation to other movements and within them. It forces an expansive and inclusive definition of labor itself. As Gago notes in discussing the October 19 strike in Argentina:

Another key point is that the notion of the strike was greatly pluralized. On the one hand, we took away the monopoly of that tool from unions, and, above all, from those photos of the five men [the leaders of the major union federation] who appear all the time, who supposedly have the power to say “we decide when there is a strike and when there isn’t” and in the meantime they go about negotiating the terms of obedience and austerity. What we did was, on the one hand, ridicule this situation, and, on the other, remove that tool and reinvent it. What we did was say “all of us women can strike” in the conditions in which are: employed, unemployed, formal or informal workers, precarious workers, housewives… and each one of us will invent and connect themselves and demonstrate how we can make the strike a tool of insubordination, of contempt. We also problematized what is a very heterogeneous map of work, especially in regards to women’s work, that is complemented by the huge wage gap between men and women, that averages 27%. That complexity of the world of work, that is the world of life and the world of care, the world of recognition, the world of wages and the world of family relations, was paradoxically put in movement with the strike. In that sense, the strike managed to connect the issue of gender violence with the issue of economic, political, social, and cultural violence in a massive act.

Precarias a la Deriva, recognizing that women and precarious workers were marginalized in the unions’ call for a general strike in 2003, asks: “how can we invent new forms of strike when production is fragmented and displaced, when it is organized in such a way that ceasing work for a few hours (or even 24 hours) does not necessary affect the production process, and when our contractual position is so fragile that a strike means risking our chance to keep working tomorrow?”[7]. The women’s strike responds to this question, not by shying away from it, but by placing these issues at the center, by pluralizing and opening up the forms of action the strike can take, and by fundamentally making it clear that it is a strike for all women, regardless of the type of labor they do.

 

The strike also serves as a form of investigation, an investigation into what types of labor women do, when, where, how, and under what conditions. An investigation into the concrete conditions and struggles of different women in different places. It makes divisions and differences visible, a reminder that “woman” is not a clearly constituted universal category. It shows that some women have been able to get ahead on the backs of other women, by displacing that reproductive labor on women of color or women in other countries. Or as the Ni Una Menos manifesto states: “We strike to make visible that until care-giving work is a responsibility of all of society, we find ourselves forced to reproduce classist and colonial exploitation among women. To go out to work we must rely on other women. To migrate we must depend on other women.” The strikes gives us an opportunity to make these hierarchies between women visible, and begin to challenge them.

 

The strike, however, allows us to find each other, and to together constitute a new collective subject, bringing our bodies together in a common action and shared territory. Just as women’s labor takes many forms, so does the women’s strike: a work stoppage, a walkout, a march, a picket, a blockade, a shopping boycott, collectively refusing gender roles. The strike takes place everywhere: in homes, schools, marketplaces, neighborhoods, the streets. And, as important as what we don’t do, is what we do instead: making ourselves available for ourselves and for each other allows us to create our own forms of organization, practices of self-defense, and structures of care.

 

While domestic tasks are somewhat more shared today and some women have somewhat more access to stable and well-paid employment, women in the United States still have countless reasons to strike. Male violence touches us all, in our homes, our neighborhoods, our schools and universities, our workplaces, in the media. Our reproductive rights and access to affordable quality healthcare is under attack across the country. Black women are being targeted and attacked by law enforcement, native women are being raped and murdered, domestic violence survivors are being detained by ICE. Women are the ones left to pick up the pieces when raids and bans destroy our communities, when welfare and SNAP benefits disappear, when we are left without access to medical care. Debt and financialized capitalism extract value from all of our daily activities and put our very existence at risk.

 

Going on strike makes this exploitation and violence visible. And the strike also proposes something else. Not only a day, but a world where we don’t have to fear male violence. Not only a day, but a world, where reproductive labor is shared. A world in which women are not defined by reproductive duties at all, in which our time and our bodies are available to ourselves. This is the other side of the women’s strike: while we are not working for others we are building power for ourselves, concrete practices and networks of self-defense and care. This is entailed in the organizing required to make the strike possible: organizing the necessary care work, strike funds, support networks that allow women to skip their normal work and take to the streets. The strike is disruptive, it is a risk. But women, of course, are not unfamiliar with taking risks – our everyday lives are full of risks, often our very homes are not even safe. The power of the strike lies in making that risk collective and in creating a time and a space in which we can be available to ourselves and to each other.

 

Liz Mason-Deese is a member of the Viewpoint editorial collective and currently teaches geography at the University of Mary Washington. She is also on the National Organizing Committee for the March 8 Women's Strike in the United States.

 

Notes

 

[1] Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body, and Primitive Accumulation (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2014), 63.

 

[2] Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (Oakland: PM Press).

 

[3] Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar, Desandar el laberinto. Introspección en la feminidad contemporánea (Buenos Aires: Tinta Limón, 2015).

 

[4] Precarias a la Deriva, A la deriva por los circuitos de la precariedad femenina (Madrid: Traficantes de Sueño, 2004).

 

[5] Ibid. 28.

 

[6] Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, The Power of Women and the Subversion of Community (Bristol, Falling Wall Press, 1975), 41.

 

[7] A la deriva, 21

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Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: Why we're taking action on March 8

Why we're taking action on March 8
February 24, 2017
https://socialistworker.org/2017/02/24/why-were-taking-action-on-march-8

March 8 is International Women's Day, but this year, it will also be an international day of action in more than 30 countries. Organizers of the massive Women's March on Washington on January 21 are among the supporters of a call by prominent scholars and activists for a women's strike that will organize resistance "not just against Trump and his misogynist policies, but also against the conditions that produced Trump, namely the decades-long economic inequality, racial and sexual violence, and imperial wars abroad."

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, the author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation and a member of the National Planning Committee for the International Women's Strike USA, talked to Socialist Worker about what March 8 could bring to the new resistance.

----------

WHY THE call for a women's strike on March 8?

THERE ARE many reasons. The first and perhaps most important reason is that the election of Donald Trump as president has unearthed a tremendous outpouring among women in opposition to his regime and agenda.

This was most palpably demonstrated on January 21, when an unprecedented outpouring of protest overwhelmed cities across the country. Where thousands were expected to demonstrate, millions of men and women clogged the streets around the country to show the deep revulsion and opposition to Trump.

The outpouring was surprising, but the sentiment of opposition and resistance was not.

Trump has breathed new life into the old insult of "sexist pig." He has been accused of sexual assault by many women; he has bragged about sexually assaulting women; he has made violent and abusive comments about women's appearance, intelligence and more. More importantly, he is pursuing a political agenda that will make ordinary women's lives harder.

January 21 showed the potential for the re-emergence of a feminist movement, but March 8 is a call for a particular kind of feminist movement. If there is a critique of the J21 action, it is about the reluctance of its organizers to embrace politics, opposition and militancy. Instead, they did not want to pose the march as being against Trump and seemed to downplay politics.

So we see March 8 as not just a call to protest the Neanderthal in the White House, but to put radical politics at the center of the resistance.

For the last several years, "lean-in feminism"--which was kind of embodied in Hillary Clinton's campaign for president--has been elevated as a goal for all women. Those who espouse its politics have made shattering glass ceilings that impede their ascent into corporate boardrooms, electoral politics and other destinations in white and wealthy America as the real objective of feminism.

We see March 8 as a reclamation project in that sense--as an effort to reconnect with the militant and radical politics of socialist feminism and Black feminism of the 1960s and 1970s, which located the oppression of women in capitalism and the free market.

For years, International Women's Day has gone unnoticed or was depoliticized. Most people no longer even know that its roots lie in the struggle of women textile workers in the U.S.--or that a mobilization of women in Russia to oppose the First World War in 1917 was the spark for an uprising that led to the overthrow of Tsar and set off the Russian Revolution.

This March 8, we are hoping that women and those who support them will join together in political actions across this country to draw attention to the conditions of working-class women's lives and the struggle needed to transform those conditions.

DO YOU see the International Women's Strike as connected to the resistance to Trump that we've already seen?

THE RESISTANCE to Trump has many fronts right now.

There is the ongoing struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline in the High Plains; there is the emerging struggle for immigrant rights and to stop the deportations; there is anti-fascist organizing happening on campuses; there is the ongoing struggle against police abuse and violence; and there is now a developing feminist movement.

These struggles aren't wholly independent of each other. Black Lives Matter has largely been led by Black women, many of them queer-identified. Some of the most vocal leaders of the anti-pipeline struggle in North Dakota have been women.

In each of these struggles, the centrality of women in the leadership has helped to elevate the ways that environmental degradation and police terrorism have a disproportionate impact on women and the families they often lead.

But the demonstrations on J21 were one expression of the potential for a new feminist movement, in addition to the critically important protests in defense of Planned Parenthood on February 11. We hope that the March 8 strike can be a building block in the development of a radical, political opposition to Trump.

Our point of emphasis is that we don't need opposition for opposition's sake, but an opposition and resistance with radical politics, which won't just be steered into putting Democrats back into office in the 2018 midterm elections. The strike is about looking at the systemic roots to women's oppression in our society.

But we also have intentionally looked to connect women's oppression to many of the attacks launched by the Trump administration. What I mean is that a women's movement that does not take up a whole range of issues--racism, Islamaphobia, anti-immigrant racism and bigotry, low-wage exploitation, the relentless attacks on the remnants of the welfare state, the U.S. government's endless promulgation of war and occupation--is not really addressing the actual issues that impact working-class women and their families.

To this end, March 8 can contribute to an ongoing systemic critique of what is wrong with American society.

WHAT KIND of activities do you expect to see on March 8? What kinds of strikes will supporters be organizing?

MARCH 8 in the United States is part of an international call for a "women's strike" that now involves at least 30 countries. This call came in response to already existing women-led struggles across the world, including the women's mobilization in Poland to stop the ban on abortion and other mass protests in Ireland and South Korea for reproductive rights.

Some have been confused by the language of "strike" and whether or not it's appropriate to use this language to describe the action called for March 8. Some of this confusion or disagreement stems, I believe, from a narrow view of a "strike" as an action called by a trade union--and the belief that, given the weakened state of the U.S. labor movement, that a strike of this nature is unrealistic.

I think we would agree that a "general strike" of this sort would be inappropriate to call for--and an impossibility right now to achieve. But there is another history of a "women's strike" that is intended to call attention to the unpaid and often overlooked contributions of women's labor--what some refer to as "social reproduction."

In some ways, that's the point: Women's work--in the home especially, but in other ways that some work has been feminized--is devalued or differently valued. The removal of that labor draws attention to the important--and often unpaid, or at least undervalued and underpaid--role of women in the functioning of society.

This is especially true for Black women, Latinas and women from immigrant communities. Black women are paid 63 cents for every dollar made by a white man. Undocumented women working in agriculture and domestic work not only toil for low wages, but are under the constant threat of physical and sexual violence because of the absence of any workplace or civil protections on account of their immigration status.

These disparities manifest themselves in declining health, imprisonment, housing insecurity and a host of other destabilizing conditions.

The Women's Strike for Equality in 1970 was called by the National Organization for Women and was intended to celebrate women's suffrage, but also to draw attention to women's unpaid labor and demand women's equality, including "free abortion on demand". Thousands of women participated in the strike as an expression of the women's movement of the 1970s.

We, like many other people, were inspired by the outpouring on J21. In that sense, we have called for participation in the strike on relatively short notice. But we have been heartened by the outpouring of support and interest.

The strike has been endorsed by the organizers of the January 21 protests, and just as importantly, by the "bodega strikers" in New York City, who took action in opposition to Trump's illegal Muslim travel ban. These endorsements of March 8 build the kind of solidarity we think is crucial in organizing the anti-Trump resistance.

On our website, we list many ways that people can participate in March 8, including marches, speakouts, public forums and even wearing red where participation otherwise isn't possible.

But where possible, the point of the strike is for women to withdraw their labor, in all of its forms, for a day to highlight how critical "women's work" remains to the political economy of the United States.

WHAT DO you hope to see on March 8?

THE TURNOUT for March 8 will look different across the country.

I imagine there will be larger protests in places like New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., where there has been deeper mobilization and some ongoing organizing. But we expect that there will be actions of some sort across the country.

They will take different forms. I've heard that there will be a "women's assembly" in Geneva, New York, to discuss the material issues shaping women's lives. In Chicago, organizing has included input from the Chicago Teachers Union and other activists. In Los Angeles, there is an amazing grouping of Black feminist organizers who have been involved in the Women's Global Strike for several years.

To be honest, it's difficult to know how large March 8 will be or the range of activities that will take place. We know that on J21, there were few demands, and the bar was very low to be involved.

We intentionally put forward a political call that includes self-determination for Palestine, an unapologetic demand for access to abortion, and a demand for socialized childcare. This is intended to raise politics--radical politics--in the budding women's movement.

That will have an impact on the number of people who feel like they should participate. But it will be an attraction for those looking for deeper politics than just "opposition" or "resistance."

We also see this as the beginning and not the end. There will be a tremendous amount of work to do on March 9 and beyond. The main thing will be gearing up for the May 1 protests for immigrant rights all across the country. The face of deportation thus far has been mothers ripped from their families, but also men disappeared into detention, depriving families of desperately needed resources.

These are the kind of connections we hope can be highlighted on March 8. And in turn, we hope March 8 contributes to the growing movements in this country.

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