It’s been a turbulent year for women everywhere. Whilst a self-confessed perpetrator of sexual assault sits in the White House, feminist grassroots organisations are gaining in strength and momentum. The #MeToo movement continues to make headlines – but some seem quick to tamp out any suggestion that the problems it points to are truly as widespread or damaging as many women claim. We have a woman prime minister – but she heads up the cruel economic settlement of austerity, 86% of whose effects falls on the shoulders of women. This year, we mark 100 years of women’s suffrage – but like that early triumph, many of the benefits of feminist movements are recouped by more privileged women.
In short, whilst feminism itself becomes increasingly mainstream, it’s not so clear that women’s political and economic situation is improving in step. A few women have been allowed to rise to the top – but for the millions at the bottom of the tugged-up ladders, the fight is far from over. So this March, the time seems ripe to return to the radical roots of International Women’s Day. It began life as International Working Women’s Day, organised by women from the Socialist Party of America – notably Theresa Malkiel, Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg. All labor organisers, their focus was on how womens’ lives – and their suffocating unfreedoms – were shaped by the work they did, from the sweatshop-reliant garment industry, to service work, to the unpaid domestic work to which they returned after their paid shifts were over. For these original organisers, the strike was a key tactic in the women’s struggle, with Luxemburg advocating a mass strike to secure women (and indeed all working people) the vote.
More than a hundred years later, it looks like the women’s strike is back – and it means business. On March 8th, networks of feminist groups across the world – in Poland, the USA, Spain, Ireland, Argentina and the UK to name a few – are downing tools for a day to demand real change. They say they’re not content with politicians lip service to the idea of equality whilst they undermine the “conditions of womanhood” – and so are taking to the streets in a mixture of strikes, protests and direct actions. The movement unites a diverse constellation of demands, from reproductive rights to challenging the colonial violence, from economic justice to greater access to healthcare for trans women. The insights of the #MeToo movement – that feminine life is fraught with violence – are broadened to talk about a wide range of violence with which women are forced to contend, including economic privation and violence at the hands of police or immigration officials. All these demands are united under the idea the cause that women striking means more than simply not turning up at the office – but refusing the daily unpaid burdens of domestic and caring work, which still overwhelmingly fall to women. The UK organisers state that “The Women’s Strike is about refusing all the work that women do – whether paid work in offices and factories, or unpaid domestic work in homes, communities and bedrooms.” The contention is powerfully simple: our economic and political system is driven by the huge amounts of unpaid work done by women – . If women’s domestic work makes the world, it is within the power of women to make the world different.