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Why We Strike

This week, women across the country will put down tools to give expression to a new kind of feminism.

Kena Betancur/Getty Images

On March 8, International Women’s Day, America is going to have a day without women. A loose coalition of groups has called on women to go on strike from their paid jobs and the unpaid work of being a woman, and to boycott the entire system by refusing to spend money. They will be protesting many things, including President Donald Trump and his anti-woman, -immigrant, and -trans policies. But they will be united by one particular reason to strike: The undervaluation of everything that women do.

The day echoes back through history. International Women’s Day was initially a commemoration of a strike staged by tens of thousands of female garment workers in New York City in 1908. Their call at the time was better pay, the right to vote, and the right to form unions. It was made all the more relevant three years later when a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory killed 146 low-paid, mostly female employees, sparking a transformation of labor rules and working conditions.

Similarly, the women’s liberation movement became a household concept thanks to tens of thousands of women who went on strike and marched through the streets in 1970, marking the 50-year anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. Those women abstained from both paid labor, where they were compensated less than men and faced stark odds of being promoted to prestigious jobs, and unpaid labor. Their demands: Equal opportunities for education and employment, 24/7 child care centers, and free abortion on demand.

Given that much has changed since 1908 and 1970, some have suggested that it doesn’t make sense for women to strike from gendered labor and take to the streets. In Elle, Sady Doyle writes, “In an earlier era of highly segregated career paths, a ‘women’s strike’ had a specific, tangible effect: It made invisible work visible.” Even though she’s talking specifically about the action in 1970, it was true to some extent of the turn-of-the-century garment workers, as well: Their work was done locked away in a sweatshop for barely any money, making clothing for the better-off who didn’t have to think about how it was made.

But, Doyle says, “Today women have better access to education and high-paying jobs than ever. [B]ecause of these changes it’s harder than ever to define women’s precise relationship to ‘work,’ or to pinpoint a specific problem that female workers can address through striking.” The 1970 strike was particularly successful, she argues, because it highlighted something shared by all women: Underpaid, underappreciated work.

It’s undeniable that women’s roles have changed. Women can, and do in large and influential numbers, vote. Today, women have climbed into roles as lawyers, doctors, and CEOs. The gender wage gap has narrowed from women making about 60 percent of men’s pay in 1970 to 80 percent today. The modern man does far more of his share of the dishes and the diapers than times past.

Demonstrators at the Women’s Strike for Equality in New York City, 1970.
Keystone/Getty Images

But it’s still true that in virtually any job a woman takes today, from those in the loftiest penthouse offices to cleaning the office floors, she’ll make less than a man doing the same work. Women may be getting college educations in larger numbers than men, but they’re being paid less than men with the same educational credentials. Some women—women of color or trans women, for example—make even less than their white and cis peers.

And while they’ve pushed their way into male-dominated fields like science and law, by and large women still do poorly paid, badly respected “women’s work” while men hold better remunerated jobs. The typical blue-collar job has barely improved its integration of women since the ‘70s, while progress in integrating the genders in other occupations has slowed in recent decades. Men and women largely still work in different universes, and men’s work pays better.

Women’s work also continues when they get home. On a typical day, 85 percent of women are doing some kind of unpaid labor at home, compared to about two-thirds of men, and when women do this work they spend more time on it. While heterosexual men have increased their share of the burden, most of it still falls to their female partners, even though those partners are much more likely now to be simultaneously juggling paid work.

While the women who first issued a call for a strike on March 8 identified many causes—striking against Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, violence against women—they also laid out an economic case. The strike is meant to foster “a feminism for the 99 percent,” and the actions “are aimed at making visible the needs and aspirations of those whom lean-in feminism ignored: Women in the formal labor market, women working in the sphere of social reproduction and care, and unemployed and precarious working women.”

Similarly, the women’s march organizers ask women to strike in recognition of “the enormous value that women of all backgrounds add to our socio-economic system—while receiving lower wages and experiencing greater inequities, vulnerability to discrimination, sexual harassment, and job insecurity.”

The recent froth of protest activity is clearly in direct response to Trump and his administration, and this call for a general strike—a type of protest that is rarely used in this country, but is popular elsewhere—has almost certainly taken hold, thanks to the hunger for more outlets for this energy. Women who decide to strike, then, will likely do so for all sorts of reasons: To protest the Muslim ban or recent ICE raids and deportations, or to call on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign.

But all women who decide not to do any paid or unpaid work on March 8 will be bound together by an enduring truth: That the work they do is still unappreciated and poorly rewarded.

Women’s progress over the last century can’t be ignored. But nor can it be ignored that women across classes, races, religions, and creeds share something in common: The burden of having their work undervalued or, at least in the home, not valued at all. That’s reason enough to strike and show the country just how valuable we are.