When Women Strike: What history shows us "A Day Without a Woman" can hope to achieve


Women these days have a lot to be mad about: the gender pay gap, institutional sexism, racial inequality, the deteriorating guarantee of bodily autonomy — so many things. 

So it follows that the list of issues being highlighted by A Day Without a Woman, the nationwide strike called by eight female activists and scheduled for March 8, is long. Its central objective is not easy to summarize in one sentence, but according to the organizers, it is roughly, "to highlight the economic power and significance that women have in the U.S. and global economies, while calling attention to the economic injustices women and gender nonconforming people continue to face."

A Day Without a Woman, which intentionally falls on International Women's Day and is in conjunction with the Women's March, calls on women to refrain from work, childcare, shopping, cooking or any form of labor and instead demonstrate against gender injustice in all its many forms. Which is to say that A Day Without a Woman has a broad and many pronged goal. 

Some say that could very well be its downfall. 

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Lauren Leader-Chivée is the founder and CEO of All In Together, a non-partisan, non-profit campaign that fosters civic and political engagement, empowering them to get involved in politics. A vast intersectional platform made sense for the Women's March, but it doesn't necessarily make sense in this context. 

Acknowledging that women face a huge number of interlaced frustrations, Leader-Chivée explained that striking against all of them at once would be hard and potentially unproductive. As the list of issues addressed on A Day Without a Woman grows, she said, it "becomes less and less clear what the strike is for." What a strike needs to be successful, she said, is focus.

"I deeply understand the desire that many Americans feel to just protest," Leader-Chivée said. "And there is value in that and that is the magic of the first amendment." 

"But," she continued, "for women to be making progress on issues that matter to them, the specific and focused organized support around specific issues, I think, is ultimately going to have greater value than continuing to do these larger unfocused shows of support." 

"Withholding your money, wearing red, refraining from doing paid or unpaid work," she said. "It's just not clear what the goal is."

Strikes fare best when they have clear goals

Strikes that have made measurable impact have named a single issue as their own. Leader-Chivée cites Fight for 15 as a movement that has had particular success in its aim to raise the minimum wage for low-wage workers. Generally, if a group decides to revoke some form of currency from the marketplace, be it money or labor or sex, the group stands a better chance of getting what they want when that thing can be easily named. 

Take Poland's recent Black Monday strikes, for example (a demonstration from which A Day Without a Woman borrows its driving idea). On that day in October, women refused to attend work and school, instead joining in mass demonstrations against the country's proposed abortion ban.

At the time, the Parliament's Law and Justice Party looked poised to both outlaw and criminalize abortion, a procedure which was already subject to aggressive restrictions in Poland. As former Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz told the Guardian, the party backed off the bill "because it was scared by all the women who hit the streets in protests." 

Thousands of people, dressed in black and waving signs, flooded the streets of 60 Polish cities to voice their disdain for the ban. According to the Telegraph, the absence of women forced government agencies, school and universities to shut down for the day. 

Czarek Sokolowski/AP

Black Monday drew inspiration from a women's strike in Iceland of over 40 years ago. According to the BBC, 90% of the country's women declined to do the cooking or the childcare on Oct. 24, 1975. They did not show up to work. Instead, they engaged in a mass protest for equal rights, the so-called Long Friday that brought the country to a halt. The absence of so many women left a number of businesses shuttered for the day, and the country's men in disarray. 

It was also effective: Just five years later, Iceland elected its first female president, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, who also happened to be the first female elected leader in Europe. 

"What happened that day was the first step for women's emancipation in Iceland," Vigdis told the BBC. "It completely paralyzed the country and opened the eyes of many men."

In the summer of 1970, women in the U.S. did something similar. On Aug. 26, the National Organization for Women backed the Women's Strike for Equality March in New York City, which was the idea of Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan. Friedan wanted women to step away from the stove, blow off their household chores in favor and instead, march in the streets for abortion rights, gender equality in professional and educational realms and improved access to childcare.

According to Time, the march did not reach the same scale as civil rights and Vietnam War demonstrations, but still, the Strike for Equality was "easily the largest women's rights rally since the suffrage protests." It put feminists nationwide directly in the public eye, and two years later, we got Title IX, the education amendment that forbid sex-based discrimination in education. In 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that a right to bodily privacy meant one must be legal obtain an abortion in the first trimester. 


Success is subjective

Even the women's strikes that have placed a manageable number of issues on the table, though, have met with indeterminate success. 

When a country's worth of women decide to withhold sex until their selected issue is addressed, for example, it made headlines, but maybe didn't translate to concrete gains. As NPR reported, various groups of women went on sex strikes with mixed results. In 2009, in Kenya, the Women's Development Organization coalition declared a week of abstinence to end governmental infighting. Its effectiveness is a difficult thing to gauge, but in 2017, Kenyan women tried it again, urging women to refrain from having sex until the country's men registered to vote. 

As NPR pointed out, when the goal is to sign up more voters, publicity — which a sex strike is more or less guaranteed to attract — is precisely what's needed. 

Women in Colombia have launched a total of three sex strikes, according to NPR, to indeterminable measurable effect. In 2011, after Belgium had been without a parliament for 241 days, Senator Marleen Temmerman called on politicians' wives to withhold sex until they formed a new government. Nearly a year later, they did. 

Friedan wanted women to step away from the stove, blow off their household chores, and instead march in the streets.

If the goal is to generate change by generating conversation, calling off sex until a problem is resolved is a good way to do the latter. As is flooding the streets, as women recently did in Argentina over the rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl. In October, thousands of Argentine women staged a walkout and wore black to protested what they called a culture steeped in "machista" violence. The strike didn't beget an immediate culture change, but it did bring the problem to the world's attention. Sometimes, visibility is the best thing a strike can hope to achieve.

That might be true of A Day Without a Woman: Calling attention to women's value through their conspicuous absence — at home, at work, as consumers — is poised to make a strong statement. It certainly did in Iceland, and in that instance, the goal was no more specific than general equality for women. 

And striking isn't the only option

What might be more effective in a long-term sense, Leader-Chivée said, is identifying the issue that's most important to you, the foremost thing you'd be striking over, and take action on that. Catharsis feels good, but what women ultimately need is to organize.

"If you look at the most successful political movements, they're very focused," she said. "Even the women's movement of the 1970s — there were certainly mass mobilizations against general sexism and discrimination, but the progress was made in the specifics. The progress was made in a series of lawsuits and specific bills that were pushed very, very hard and leveled the playing field and remedied some of the wrongs. As we get further into this administration, there are opportunities for that."

"It's a marathon, not a sprint," she added. 

One practical way to spend International Women's Day, Leader-Chivée said, is to pinpoint "one issue that is top of mind for you, that is the most salient, most personal, most motivating issue for you" and gather 10 friends to help craft a plan. Push that issue under your representative's nose, both at the local and federal levels. Make an appointment at their office. It takes more time than a dialing the phone or writing a postcard, but the impact, she said, is infinitely stronger. 

"The energy that has happened in the last couple of months is absolutely measurably different," Leader-Chivée said. "It's incredible. And harnessing that to make real lasting change is really complicated and messy. And we need to make sure that ... we're using this opportunity to get women as educated and informed and empowered as possible in how to do this in the long term."

"We own our democracy no matter who is in power. And that has to transcend any one president at any given time."

March 3, 2017, 1:26 p.m.: This story has been updated.