Will the Women's Strike become a protest of privilege?
Critics say the women's general strike scheduled for Wednesday risks becoming a protest of privilege — one that excludes the very women it claims to champion.
On Feb. 6, the Women's March organizers launched A Day Without a Woman, a women's strike for labor rights that falls on March 8, International Women's Day — the same day as the annual International Women's Strike. Though the two events are different, they ultimately face the same problem.
Whereas the International Women's Strike suggests women engage in any feasible act of resistance, A Day Without a Woman presents specific participation options: Instead of showing up to work or moving through their daily domestic motions, women take part in demonstrations that will be held throughout the country. Women can also show solidarity by wearing red, or by refraining from spending money, unless they do so at women-owned or small local businesses.
While that may prove empowering and cathartic for the women who are able to take part, taking a day off work is a big ask for low-wage workers — the majority of whom are women.
"For me, the strike aspect wasn't happening, which I know was like a lot of women who were in that position," Stephanie Shamp, a 27-year-old waitress from Philadelphia and a co-organizer of the city's International Women's Strike events, said in a phone interview. "I would love to strike but I would [also] love to keep my job."
Working in a restaurant, the concern tends to be less for the individual worker and more that the job gets done, Shamp explained. It's not unusual for people to come to work sick because they know that, if they don't show up, their employer can always find someone to take their spot. That feeling of being replaceable, she said, is one reason why so many service industry people she knows "wish we were in unions so we could strike."
Low-wage workers tend to be women, and are disproportionately women of color: According to an Oxfam and Institute for Women's Policy Research report from late 2016, women occupy some 81% of low-wage positions nationwide, numbering 19 million of the total 23.5 million people making less than $15 an hour in the United States. In addition, the report found low-wage women workers were less likely than men to be making an hourly $15. They were also disproportionately women of color, whereas better-paid jobs tended to be occupied by white women.
The types of positions women filled were different, too. Nursing, psychiatric and home health aides were 89% female, according to the report. Personal and home care aides were 85.5% female; medical assistants were 95% female; child care workers were 94.3% female; preschool and kindergarten teachers were 98% female; maids and housekeepers were 88.3% female.
The people charged with caring for others are often women, and often earn very little money. It seems unreasonable to expect these women have the financial freedom to opt out of a day's work, or that they might not get fired for doing so. And yet this strike for economic equality directly concerns them.
"I would love to strike but I would [also] love to keep my job."
Andrea Cristina Mercado, co-chair of the National Domestic Workers' Alliance's We Belong Together campaign, said in a phone interview that, yes, it would be prohibitively difficult for many of her organization's members to participate in the strike.
"It's absolutely true that it's difficult for a domestic worker to take a day off work, even when their child is sick or they need to go to the doctor," she explained.
Those who rely on female home workers can give those women the day off, or sign the Fair Care pledge. They can also strike for those who can't.
The privilege problem is nothing new: Organizers of both A Day Without a Woman and the International Women's Strike appear to have heard these criticisms before. In an essay for the Nation, International Women's Strike organizers Magally A. Miranda Alcazar and Kate D. Griffiths argue that targeted communities can be relied upon to show up and protest for their rights, even and often at great personal risk — that's how change is made. Plus, there are myriad ways to strike: Actions as subtle as refusing to smile count, according to Alcazar and Griffiths, while nationwide, organizers like Shamp are scheduling rallies for the evening, so that women who have to work still have a chance to join an action on Wednesday.
On their website, the Women's March organizers address both the problem of privilege and the question of exclusion. Women who cannot strike, whether because it's not financially feasible to skip a day or work or because doing so might cost them their jobs, are encouraged to incorporate red into their outfits. "We strike for them," the Women's March reminds participants.
Still, it's not the first time the Women's March organizers have fielded complaints about a lack of inclusivity. In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, white women on social media announced a march for women's rights to follow the inauguration of President Donald Trump. The effort, however well-intentioned it may have been in conception, attracted criticism for being a protest by and for white women, a movement that borrowed its central concept and even its name from moments in black history, even as it left out women of color.
That white women were first among those to complain about the election of a noted misogynist was fuel on the fire: A reported 53% of white women voted for Trump, apparent hypocrisy illustrated by a viral photo from the Women's March on Washington. In the foreground, it featured a black woman holding a sign that said "Don't forget: White women voted for Trump," and in the background, pink pussy-hatted white women taking selfies.
Certainly, there were women who were left out of the Women's March, including a number of low-wage workers who had to do their jobs instead of protesting. Activists showed up to represent women who could not participate themselves. A Day Without a Woman and the International Women's Strike require the same.
The simple fact is that some women stand to lose less than others when they stand up. As the Women's March organizers put it, Wednesday might be a good day for women of privilege to "leverage that resource for social good."