International Women's Day 2017: Activists are reclaiming feminism, resistance, politics from 'pantsuit nation' reps
The organisers of the successful Women’s March on Washington have called for a day of action to mark International Women’s Day (8 March) in dozens of cities in the US
The organisers of the successful Women’s March on Washington have called for a day of action to mark International Women’s Day (8 March) in dozens of cities in the US. A Day Without a Woman, as the event is called in the US, is taking place alongside events in more than 50 other countries around the world. Women are encouraged to avoid engaging in paid and unpaid work or at least wear red in solidarity and avoid spending money. Men — as in the case of the Women’s March — are not excluded from the protest, but they are encouraged to support it, rather than to lead it, by taking over housework, joining A Day Without a Woman events, avoiding the exploitation of sex workers, and publicly supporting the movement. As early reports indicate, many women have indeed heeded the call to strike: in the media, the service industry, education, the justice system — to name but a few.
International Women’s Day has long been associated with international socialist history, which made it way less popular in the US than holidays that were more prone to commercial exploitation, such as Mother’s Day. (Incidentally, the two women who were instrumental in achieving the recognition of Mother’s Day as a holiday were also social justice activists.) However, the organisers of the Women’s Strike are embracing the radical roots of feminist organising.
The demands of the the Women’s Strike echo many of the Bernie Sanders’ progressive campaign goals. They include lofty political goals, such as an end to all forms of bigotry. They also include more concrete — although not necessarily more realistic in the current political climate—goals, such as demands for a universal national health care that guarantees full access to reproductive freedom and an expansion of social security, a hike in national hourly minimum wage to $15, and free childcare and paid family leave.
Most important, the event organisers articulate their platform and their demands from a position that never loses sight of how political issues differentially affect people inhabiting gendered and racialised bodies under different economic conditions. The platform makes it clear that the event is “organised by and for women who have been marginalised and silenced by decades of Neoliberalism directed towards working women, women of color, Native women, disabled women, immigrant women, Muslim women, lesbian, queer and trans women.”
From the very beginning, the event was promoted by activists and intellectuals who have called for a “feminism for the 99%.” The agenda of this “new international feminist movement” would be “at once anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-heterosexist and anti-neoliberal.” Even the naming of this event—the Women’s Strike—makes an important intervention in the way feminist organising has been happening in the form of “lean-in feminism” over the past several decades. “Lean-in feminism” focuses on shattering glass ceilings to allow some women to achieve positions of power as corporate executives or politicians.
As opposed to this type of feminism, “feminism of the 99%” focuses on emphasises the everyday forms of violence that affect the majority of women: “domestic violence, but also the violence of the market, of debt, of capitalist property relations, and of the state; the violence of discriminatory policies against lesbian, trans and queer women; the violence of state criminalisation of migratory movements; the violence of mass incarceration; and the institutional violence against women’s bodies through abortion bans and lack of access to free healthcare and free abortion.”
The Women’s Strike also emphasises labour that most women have to perform in capitalist societies in the form of unpaid housework and the work of biological reproduction. This sexual division of labour exposes women to work in precarious jobs such as those filled by undocumented workers, the lack of labour rights, or unemployment. Some critics pointed to this complex relationship of women to unpaid and paid work to raise questions about the already existing privileges that allow some women not to work for a day.
The supporters of the Women’s Strike quickly intervened, “Striking is not a privilege. Privilege is not having to strike.” They pointed out that there are many ways in which women who support the strike can get involved, such as by organising discussions in their communities or simply refusing to smile to strangers. These forms of protest would not require them to risk losing their sources of livelihood and instead enable them to confront social isolation that exacerbates their exploitation. At the same time, the withholding of labour by more privileged women can draw attention to the plight of those less privileged.
The Women’s Strike on 8 March revealed faultlines in the women’s movement that mirror those that exist in wider progressive politics in the US where the Democratic Party should presumably assume the mantle of leading the anti-Trump resistance. As the recent choice of Tom Perez over Keith Ellison shows, the Democratic leadership attempts to steer the political energy that is building up in the country in ways that they are comfortable with. That strategy is familiar to those who are still angry at the party for favouring Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in the primaries. The good news is that so far the bulk of the organising has come from the grassroots; people are not waiting for the Democratic Party to lead. As the Women’s Strike shows, the inspiration for such organising comes from the Occupy Movement, the Standing Rock protests, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Progressive activists are wrestling the notions of feminism, resistance, and politics from the representatives of the “pantsuit nation.”
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