The Paradox of a Day Without Women

(Photo: Sipa USA via AP/Erik McGregor)

Women and allies march to celebrate International Women's Day and the International Women's Strike on March 8 in New York City.

The call to participate in Wednesday’s Day Without A Woman strike might have set women an impossible task.

Organizers of the mass strike, which coincided with International Women’s Day, conceived of the event as a “one-day demonstration of economic solidarity” to bring attention to the unpaid and often invisible domestic work that women perform on a daily basis. Yet the very nature of women’s work—often unpaid, and disproportionately represented in essential professions like health, social services, and education—made it impossible for many women to participate.

“If I take the day off, it means I have to either work later, or work on the weekend,” said Sandy Huntzinger, a single mother of two from Columbus, Ohio, who was unable to stay home from her job as a domestic violence victim services coordinator. “And I don’t want to do that because it’s their [my children’s] time.”

Such tensions, even among feminist women inclined to show their support for economic equity for women, helps explain why the Day Without A Woman strike passed by with less of the drama and media attention that characterized the Women’s March during President Trump’s inauguration weekend, which drew millions into the streets around the world.

Unlike those street protesters, the women who skipped work Wednesday could not be counted, making the strike’s impact harder to measure. The Day Without A Woman, moreover, revealed tensions in feminist circles, with critics noting that the ability to refuse to go to work was an indication of class and situational privilege.

The Women’s March organizers who called for Wednesday’s strike acknowledged that it would be hard for many to stay home from work, and suggested that women also not make any purchases except from women- and minority-owned business. “Many women in our most vulnerable communities will not have the ability to join the strike, due to economic insecurity. We strike for them,” the website states, while also recognizing the women who work in essential services, like health and reproductive care, for whom “taking off work would come at a great social cost.”

Even so, some women still voiced uncertainty about the strike’s ultimate efficacy. Others remained critical of the tactic, and many were reluctant to abandon their work, either because of their professions or because they worried their employers would frown on their taking the day off.

Women interviewed by the Prospect on Wednesday expressed complicated feelings regarding the strike.

“I see my role as a therapist as being centered around social justice,” said Sarah DelPropost, an Ohio social worker. “I felt that by striking from my work—my passion—I would be neglecting the role I have in providing support, however small, to the women, LGBTQ, immigrant, and minority clients I see.”

“I’m lucky,” said Stephanie Craddock Sherwood, the executive director of an Ohio abortion fund. “I’m a middle-class ‘cis’ white woman who doesn’t have any kids, who works from home. Me not going to work tomorrow would not really affect anyone other than the people my nonprofit serves.”

Chasity Cooper, a Washington, D.C., communications strategist who works on a range of progressive issues, voiced a similar sentiment.

“If I were to take a day off and not focus on the work that needs to be done, I would count that as being counterproductive,” said Cooper. “I think now more than ever, there’s very little opportunities for us to sit idle. Resistance comes in a lot of different forms, and pushing back on this current administration is absolutely necessary.”

Nevertheless, Wednesday’s event sparked participation in cities around the country, with a smattering of arrests in New York, and hundreds of protesters in Washington at the Capitol, the White House, and the Supreme Court. Schools in Arlington, Virginia, and Prince George’s County, Maryland, closed due to an exodus of teachers, as did nine D.C. charter schools.

One such event on Wednesday was a White House rally to oppose the Trump administration’s global gag rule, which prohibits U.S. funding for NGOs that provide abortions or even talk about abortion. Hundreds showed up, many of them wearing red—the color organizers had invited women to wear to denote solidarity. Some were on their lunch breaks, or had flexible work schedules that allowed them to attend Women’s Day events.

Several teachers at the White House rally, on strike from the local charter school DC Prep, said they had thought carefully before deciding to take the day off. Their concerns included how it might affect the workload of other teachers, or how working parents would secure child care for the day should enough teachers request leave that the school would have to close.

In the end, the teachers said they believed it was important to demonstrate to their students the importance of taking a stand on issues like health-care access and gender equality. “These issues are specific to their lives,” said fifth-grade teacher Tanai Hall. “All of us thought about what the impact would be of not showing them that we care about their rights.”

The Day Without A Woman drew inspiration from February 16’s Day Without Immigrants, which forced the closure of restaurants across the country, including many in Washington, D.C. February’s strike in turn echoed the nationwide immigrant-rights protest in 2006 that turned thousands out into the streets as children skipped school and adults skipped work. Such mobilizations, specific to certain gender, ethnic, or social groups, have drawn comparisons to the general strikes of organized labor’s heyday. But Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says the strikes of this century have less in common with the general strikes of the 1930s and 1940s than with European-style mass protests over issues like austerity, employment rights, or tenure.

The 2006 protest “was a strike about politics in the nation, rather than specific industrial issues in a workplace or city,” Lichtenstein explains. The limitations of Wednesday’s event had less to do with whether a woman could actually strike, says Lichtenstein, than with the lack of specific issue or demand, such as, say, fully funding Planned Parenthood.

Lichtenstein adds that strikes are most effective not when they are individual (thinking about whether one woman can take the day off) but rather when they are collective. Taking a more vertical approach—within an institution or field—rather than a horizontal one across a population, can also work.

“There are many institutions in this society which are from the top to the bottom hostile to the Trump agenda, especially on immigration,” argues Lichtenstein, citing Hollywood and Silicon Valley as examples. Activating such sectors, he adds, could produce a protest that is “sort-of halfway between a traditional strike and what we have now, which is sort of atomized.”

Celia Garcia Perez, a mother of two in Washington, D.C., had doubts about the effectiveness of the strike, which she worried wasn’t helping average women. But she said she was supportive of women who were striking, including the teachers at her daughter’s Montessori school, which was closed for the day. “You’ve got to make things a little difficult to achieve what you want to achieve.”

A mass strike might have been a tall order for women workers, who comprise nearly two-thirds of minimum-wage workers (nearly a quarter are women of color). They make up the majority of public school teachers, and 79 percent of the health and social services workforce, often in jobs that are lower-paying than male-dominated fields. (According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for home health aides is just over $20,000.) Nevertheless, women participating in the strike said it had sparked valuable conversations about the varied experiences of American women.

“Change happens between interactions on an individual level,” says Stephanie Craddock Sherwood. “The people who are striking are now going to be questioning who can’t be there, and why they can’t be there, and what we can do to make sure they can be represented in the movement.”

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