- Interview by
- Erin Mahoney
Hundreds of thousands of women plan to march in Washington, DC, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, protesting — among other things — his rank misogyny, history of sexual assault, and proposed cuts to public services. Alongside this protest, National Women’s Liberation (NWL) has called on women nationwide to strike from all work, paid and unpaid, on January 20 and 21.
“The incoming administration is promising to cut, undermine, privatize, or eliminate every social contract from public schools to Medicare to Social Security. They expect the ‘family’ (by which they mean women) to fill in the gaps and pick up the pieces. No we won’t. This strike is a warning. Our work can no longer be taken for granted,” the group stated.
Women from all over the country are pledging to stop work, sharing their reasons on the strike website. Some point to decidedly feminist issues — the pay gap and uncompensated reproductive labor like child care and housework — while others speak to issues that are not generally thought of as feminist — the health-care system, wage stagnation, and income inequality. The strike demonstrates how feminists and the labor movement can work together over the next four years to fight for improved working and living conditions for everyone.
Erin Mahoney, a member of NWL and a union organizer in New York City, recently interviewed NWL organizer Jenny Brown about the strike.
There are already demonstrations planned in DC. Why call a women’s strike?
The strike idea came from our recognition that it’s women’s work, both paid and unpaid, that makes everything possible — and yet we were portrayed by the incoming president as appropriate targets for harassment and assault, and called liars when we reported the abuse. In Trump’s ideal world women are allowed limited roles as servants and ornaments and sexual playthings. But when we when we take on roles as journalists or politicians we are attacked for even being there.
But these male supremacists need our cooperation — without women’s work, everything stops. As one pledge-signer wrote in, “Let us women know how you can do this without our contributions to family and society.”
The strike is also for women who can’t make it to DC — they can demonstrate in their towns or make their objections known in other ways — even those who can’t take time off work. A woman in Massachusetts wrote in, “Hopefully I can get off from work; if I can’t I’ll refuse to put up with any of my male customers’ bullshit. I won’t be putting on makeup and I won’t keep my thoughts to myself.”
Along with stopping racist and sexist assaults, the strike focuses on national health care, reproductive freedom, child care, a $15 minimum wage, paid family leave, and protecting Social Security. Why these particular demands?
The whole program that we expect the new administration to ram through — from attacking abortion and birth control to destroying Medicare and Social Security and the public schools — is predicated on women doing more work for free. Rather than putting in programs like universal child care that would make having kids easier, they’ll just make sure we have no choice but to have kids by narrowing our reproductive rights, and we’ll just have to pay for it however we can, which means more crazy schedules, less sleep, and more exhaustion.
As everything around medical care and elder care has become more expensive, we end up doing a lot of the care at home, as when our family members or friends are discharged from the hospital “quicker and sicker” to save the insurance company money. The unpaid care work falls on women. You can bet we’ll see a lot more of that if the incoming Congress gets its way.
Public schools are the largest area in US life where there’s a recognition that raising children is a vital job that makes society possible and should be compensated. But cuts upon cuts have decimated our schools and required more and more from both teachers and parents. Parents already supplement schools by volunteering in the classroom and raising money — but the school privatizers would like us to do even more: they’re even pushing virtual schools and homeschooling.
What about equal pay?
Women need equal pay, and many strike pledgers have mentioned unfair pay in their comments. Women’s pay has gotten closer to men’s in the last forty years, but a good part of that is because men’s pay has been going down! US workers have doubled their productivity, but all the gains have been going to the 1 percent. If 1968’s minimum wage had kept up with productivity, it would be between $16 and $22 an hour now.
We need more of that productivity to show up in our pay, and the first thing to do is raise the floor to $15 an hour across the board. That will directly raise the pay of around 40 percent of workers in the United States, the majority of them women. This is where the feminist movement and the labor movement should be marching together. The only place where equal pay for men and women is enforced is under a union contract. That’s how women have gotten equal pay, where we have gotten it. Sure, some public employers may have made it a policy — but only when the unions went first and made it a reality.
You’ve talked about going from the “family wage” to the “social wage”? What is that?
When the labor movement demanded a “family wage” at the turn of the last century, they were asking employers to pay them enough to raise a family — enough to support a husband, wife, and children on one paycheck. It was sexist, but at least a family wage meant that the bosses paid for raising the next generation of workers.
But now both spouses work, and family care and maintenance is being squeezed into the small time available after work. So employers have gotten out of paying toward the maintenance and reproduction of their workforce, and they’ve piled the work and expense onto us.
In other countries, with stronger labor movements, the solution has been to force employers to pay for someone to do the family work. Fifty countries provide six months or more paid maternity or parental leave, while US law provides for no paid leave at all. Then they have free or heavily subsidized child care, and national health-care systems providing care that in the United States is up to workers to purchase.
On top of that, they have long paid vacations, shorter work weeks, unemployment insurance that doesn’t run out, and free college. All of these things require a strong labor movement and usually a labor party, because employers don’t want to pay for these things. Employers would rather not pay people to stay home from work and take care of their kids. But in other countries, they’ve been forced to by a combination of the feminist and labor movements.
So that’s the social wage, things that you get that aren’t related to your employment status, age, income, or marital status. As Redstockings points out, these programs boost women’s equality because they are independent of family relationships and marriage. They’re also independent of jobs — when women depend on employers for basic survival, it amplifies the effects of job discrimination.
In the United States, we don’t even know what we’re missing because we are constantly told we live in the richest country in the world — as if having rich people in our country makes everyone better off. It’s the opposite, of course, because they got rich by paying us low wages and avoiding taxes. The Walton family has more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of Americans combined, and it’s because they pay their workforce so poorly, they avoid paying for fringe benefits, and they aren’t required to pay much in the way of taxes.
How does all this relate to the daily sexism women face? National Women’s Liberation has attacked sexist advertisers with “This Oppresses Women” stickers, for example.
There’s a lot of focus on individual sexist behavior by men, but not as much focus on what makes it possible. We believe it’s structured into the economic power relations of our society, so we need to change the structures that allow it to flourish. Unequal pay and job discrimination are obvious areas — if a man makes more money than a woman, he almost automatically thinks he is worth more and his time is worth more. He also controls more of the family income. If she doesn’t make enough to live alone, she becomes dependent on a male partner or relatives. Employers obviously benefit from women being paid less because they make billions — a current estimate is $500 billion a year just from pay discrimination.
And then advertisers feed that male sense of superiority by using women’s bodies to sell everything, creating unreal beauty standards, and suggesting that women should be constantly smiling, dressed in undergarments, and available for sex. We really hit a nerve when we suggested striking against “fake smiles.” Hundreds of women have specifically mentioned that one. It’s very profound — one woman wrote in that in addition to other things she would be striking against “fake smiles and fake contentment.” Women aren’t even supposed to show discontent.
One bright spot for the US feminist movement is that we’ve done better getting individual men to share housework and child care than they have in other countries with better social wages. But the problem is that for a working couple with children, there’s not a whole lot of time available to fight over — both are overworked and starved for time. One woman with a four-year-old said, “Life just often feels like drudgery and impossible.” She called it “bone crushing.” This is common, judging from the testimonies other women have given when pledging to strike.
To get rid of everyday sexism, we need to make some advances against our employers in these areas of wages and time and financial independence. And we need an independent feminist movement that pushes for advances in both areas — both where capitalism is taking everything out of us and where men’s behavior oppresses us.
What’s next after the strike?
Feminists and economic and social justice groups are seeing a big upsurge in interest in how to resist. For us, it has been a lot of women who haven’t been active in a political group before. So we all need get good at incorporating new people and making sure everyone has a role. We also think feminist groups should rely on dues for their funding, not corporate foundations. Foundation funding has channeled feminism in less radical directions.
We’ll focus on women’s work, and how the Trump and Pence administration wants to squeeze more out of us, both in money and in time. This dovetails with their attacks on abortion and contraception, because when women aren’t willing to take on all the work and worry involved in raising children in this system, they can make us do it anyway. We already have a high unintended birth rate in the United States as a result of restrictions on contraception and abortion.
So we’ve formed committees on fighting for abortion and birth control and also fighting what feminists call the “double day” of paid and unpaid work. And we have a women of color caucus that makes the connections between racism and sexism, which is critical right now. Trump used the standard Republican appeal to whiteness as a tool to get people to vote against their own interests — 53 percent of the white women who voted chose a sexist billionaire.
This means that feminists have not done a good job of teaching how male supremacy and racism and capitalism work together. But we are going to get a crash course on this as the Republican Congress tries to push through their agenda, and we intend to be ready with a program that answers the real problems women face.