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A Women’s Strike for the 99 Percent

On March 8, 2018, millions of women across Spain struck for International Women’s Day. The nationwide shutdown showed how we can turn our personal hardships into a powerful collective resistance.

Students protest along the streets during the International Women's Day on March 08, 2019 in Madrid, Spain. Pablo Blazquez Dominguez / Getty

On March 8, 2018, millions of women across Spain took to the streets for International Women’s Day. Pickets formed at daybreak, from offices to banks and supermarkets. Traffic was cut off in the main thoroughfares, posters were put up everywhere, and in the evening a flood of feminists filled the streets in multiple cities. There were 500,000 demonstrators in Madrid, similar numbers in Barcelona, and hundreds of thousands of others across smaller cities like Vigo and Seville.

The millions thus mobilized were protesting the patriarchal violence that is widespread in all parts of society, from interpersonal relations to the sphere of paid employment (and domestic labor), the economy and politics. This was one of the biggest mobilizations that the country had seen in recent years, and indeed the Women’s Day strike in Spain enjoyed real international resonance.

The aim was to bring everything to a stop — not just businesses, but also care work and consumption. This allowed the participants to give a collective expression to what would otherwise seem like personal hardships, bringing the feminists’ call to all corners of Spain. This also had another key effect, in freeing the women’s struggle of the negative connotations that conservatives have imposed upon it and giving it the unstoppable strength that comes from making our demands “common sense.”

The work for this strike had in fact begun long before March 8, 2018: already on International Women’s Day 2017, Spanish feminists had responded to the call launched by their Argentinian comrades, mounting several partial strike actions. Already back then the idea of the general women’s strike took root in the collective imaginary, and women soon set to work organizing last year’s massive strike.

This March 8, women across Spanish territory are again rallying for a strike similar to last year’s. Everything points to another historic high point for women’s struggle. Yet feminism also faces new challenges, amidst Spain’s wider troubled political context. Those involved must think tactically not only about how to maintain our strength, but also how to make the women’s strike’s demands into reality.

Capital Against Human Life

At the level of political discourse, the March 8, 2018 strike seemed to have won the argument: it forced parties across the parliamentary arena to respond. And yet if feminist demands thus became hegemonic, their real substance remained in dispute. Indeed, there are continued right-wing attempts to appropriate the struggle. Last Sunday, the center-right Ciudadanos party’s leader in Catalonia Inés Arrimadas invoked her support for a “liberal feminism” based on upholding women’s individual freedom. She had no hesitation in presenting herself as an example of the fight for equality, simply on the basis that she is the only woman candidate for president of the Catalan government.

This was a fine expression of liberals’ idea of feminism: one focused only on quotas for women’s representation in parliaments and boardrooms. Such a feminism benefits only the 1 percent of women, while ignoring the large majority. Nothing new, here. But the liberal attempts to appropriate the struggle are also seeking to undermine one of the most important achievements of March 8, 2018: namely, its success in advancing a feminism that stands for the 99 percent, as against one representing only a small minority.

In this sense, one of the most interesting aspects of last year’s mobilization was the reappropriation of strike action as a tool for fighting for feminist demands. Of course, this was hardly the first time that women have used such a weapon; they have done so throughout the history of capitalism. But the power of March 8 was that it succeeded in connecting productive labor with reproductive labor, calling for strike action that embraced both domains.

Throughout history, strikes centered in the productive sphere have always had a close dependence on care work, even if this relationship has often been overlooked. Strikes organized in “feminized” fields of labor have always involved demands directed at reconciling employment and childcare, whether in the form of reducing the working day or with the call to create more nurseries.

And not only that. Historically, when male workers have gone on strike, the work performed by women — cooking, childcare, care of the elderly, cleaning, emotional support for men, and many other things — has been decisive in allowing men to keep the struggle going. We again saw this in another recent strike in Spain. When the workers of Coca-Cola en Lucha [a five-year fight against the closure of a Coca-Cola plant] went on strike in 2014, female family members of theirs (wives, sisters, mothers) created a distinct organization called Las espartanas precisely in order to emphasize the importance of a wider community in supporting strike action, and the role that these women played therein.

Widening the focus of struggle from production to also include reproduction, and indeed opening new possibilities for practical politics, the March 8, 2018 mobilization specifically focused on the domain of care work. This helped reconceptualize the very notion of the strike. Not only did the feminists involved in the mobilization once more emphasize the sexual division of labor in capitalist society and the unequal division of domestic tasks, but they also highlighted the neoliberal logic that translates commodification from the domain of production itself to various aspects of the private sphere (including care work, leisure, health, personal relations, etc.).

In so doing, they helped overcome that liberal approach that sees equality as simply a matter of demanding that women should have the same wages and employment opportunities that men have already. It instead targeted the structural roots of patriarchal oppression. Feminists insisted that the action did not only aim to achieve better working conditions — still less if such improvements only regard a limited section of the population. Rather, the goal was to make visible the contradiction between capital and human life in present-day society and, indeed, to show that it is the popular classes who most have to take on the burden that results.

The most palpable sign of this contradiction lies in the crisis of care work, and the global care chain that has been linked together in order to cover these tasks. In today’s neoliberal era, against the backdrop of a systemic crisis and the end of the welfare state, privatization increasingly emerges as the solution. This means outsourcing this work to others, whether by lumping it on women who have to do this domestic labor after a day at work outside the home, or — for those households with sufficient income — by employing women with less resources to do it, in many cases meaning immigrants.

At the same time, the March 8 protests pointed to the significance of care work as a site for building political conflict, and the attachment between this question and the routes toward women’s liberation. On the strike day, men had to organize care centers to cover for the fundamental tasks that the women were not providing that day. Numerous social centers and political organizations’ local spaces opened their doors to this end. With this, feminists achieved their objective of making care work a fundamentally political question.

The manifesto agreed by organizers was of unprecedented ambition: it concerned not only economic questions and care but also other issues like bodily autonomy, identity, and borders. Feminists have understood that women are not uniformly characterized in terms of gender, when this oppression is also mediated by other ones established by factors like class, race, ethnicity, and sexuality. The question was how to put together a common agenda on the basis of this diversity. Patriarchal capitalism and male violence affect all women, but at different levels. For this very reason, the strike’s platform included, among its main demands, the abrogation of the law on foreign citizens, the closing of the Internment Centers for Foreigners (CIES) — outright prisons for migrants — and other measures against xenophobia, racism and transphobia.

A Changing Political Context

Events like March 8, 2018 are often described in terms of the “stoppage”: as if this were some sudden, unexplained interruption. Yet as against those that portray such developments in isolation from the overall social reality, we should set last year’s feminist strikes within the sociopolitical context in which they emerged. Such mobilizations ought to be understood in terms of how they actually came about: a slow process of accumulating forces, which takes place in interplay with other social factors.

Spain’s feminist movement has a rich memory stretching across decades, and the strike is the fruit of long years of work by feminists. To find the source of this mobilization we would have to go back to the period of the Transition that followed the end of the Franco dictatorship in 1975.

Emerging against the backdrop of the social upheaval that developed in the post-Franco era, the feminist movement established itself as a distinct political actor. At that time its agenda focused on demanding the decriminalization of adultery, sexual freedom, rights to abortion and divorce, and the release of the women imprisoned by Francoism. During the four decades of dictatorship women had been treated like eternal children, and feminism emerged a much-needed cry of protest, adequate to the struggles of the time. Massive demonstrations were held in Madrid (in 1975), Barcelona (1976) and Granada (1979) and mass protests were called which could not exactly count on the wider society’s favor. The January 1976 demonstration in which thousands of women streamed down the Calle Goya behind a banner reading “Woman, fight for your liberation, unite!” met with applause but also insults and some abuse.

From that point, feminism was a constant in Spanish political life, though there were moments of lull as well as others in which it was more connected with social mobilization. After the transgressive role it had taken on in the post-Franco period, in the 1980s and 1990s there was a winding-down of Spanish feminism’s conflictual aspect. With successive PSOE (center-left) governments and the establishment of gender studies in the universities, there was a co-optation of feminist demands by parliamentary and university structures, consolidated in so-called “institutional” or “social democratic” feminism.

In 2009, however, there came another turning point in the feminist agenda. This was evident in the conference held in Granada involving close to three thousand women, which provided a space for reflection on questions of economics and identity, and indeed trans and racialized women’s critique of the hegemonic white identity. This meeting was rich not only in ideas but also in practical proposals. After years of institutionalization, it was possible to deploy a repertoire of actions that could be used by an autonomous movement, laying the ground for a fruitful new series of mobilizations.

In February 2014, thousands of women organized in the Freedom Train, which headed to the capital to demonstrate against the Abortion Law of 2010 that imposed limits on women’s freedom of choice (for instance, forcing women to provide a formal medical justification). This protest achieved not only the abrogation of this law, but also the resignation of the conservative Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz Gallardón (indeed, this was the first time in the democratic era that a social movement managed to force a minister’s resignation). November 7, 2015 marked a further precedent, with mass demonstrations in several cities against male violence, repeated the following year. In 2017 there were multiple actions in response to the “La Manada” case, a group rape that took place during the San Fermines festivities. These actions made it possible to connect protests against male and sexual violence with a denunciation of the patriarchal Spanish justice system, which charged the attackers with sexual abuse rather than rape.

This series of actions, centered on women’s right to make decisions over our own bodies and opposition to male violence, was crucial to the development of Spanish feminism. First, it allowed a new generation of young women to join the feminist struggle. At a time of social agitation in Spain, against the backdrop of the deep economic and political crisis that took root in 2008 and the strength of the 15M anti-austerity movement, here many young women had a first experience of activism precisely in the feminist movement. This was also the necessary breeding ground for the subsequent development of Spanish feminism, as it joined the first feminist strike called by the Argentinians in 2017, which expanded even further on March 8 of last year.

The 2017 and 2018 strike days have already entered history as fundamental experiences for Spanish feminism. They have opened up a new cycle whose character is still to be concretized but is already showing certain distinctive traits. Without doubt, among the most noteworthy is the fact that they linked male violence — a theme already present in previous mobilizations, and a very important one in a country has seen almost a thousand women murdered since 2013 — with another terrain of struggle rooted in structural, economic and institutional violence.

Another March 8

In the build-up to March 8, 2019, Spain’s feminists are preparing what looks to be another historic day. And they will not be alone: for women in countries like Chile, Belgium, Germany, and Portugal have already announced that this year they, too, will strike. Its success will be measured in the mass mobilizations across Spanish territory. But its longer-term stability will depend on its capacity to meet certain challenges it faces. But after two mass mobilizations, in a moment in which the Spanish political panorama is in flux, feminists have to soberly reflect on their tactics for the coming period.

Indeed, we face a context in which the forces of change, principally represented by Podemos, are on the back foot and the far right is on the rise. When conservative forces distort feminism into a liberal notion that can easily be tolerated by the state apparatus, the movement’s challenge will probably link up with a wider social conflict extending beyond the borders of this state, in a moment of global neoliberalism. At the same time, the organizational capacity put on display in these great demonstrations should also be put to concrete use in other terrains of struggle with which it has natural links, like the movements surrounding housing, environmentalism, or the trade union struggle in feminized sectors of the economy.

Importantly, feminism should organize its own agenda, and one based on concrete demands able to make up part of an overall framework. However, history has clearly shown us capitalist institutions’ capacity to co-opt the most superficial of demands and impose a resolution from above. Hence feminism’s most pressing task is probably that of maintaining its autonomy as a force aspiring to a radical social transformation. To this end it must sharpen the contradiction between the logic of capitalist accumulation and the maintenance of human life, and challenge political and economic institutions with the creation of our own self-organized ones.